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Final Report from The Nation Cruise: Terrorism, Justice and Politics

By Christopher Renner
News | December 29, 2009

HALF MOON CAY, Bahamas - The final seminar of The Nation's 2009 Cruise featured Narda Zacchino, Patricia Williams, Christian Parenti and William Greider discussing the effects the "War on Terror" has had on the United States. Eyal Press moderated the panel.

Given the events that transpired on December 25th with the attempt to blow up Flight 253, the views and opinions share during this panel, have new and more urgent significance for progressives.

Each panelist was given five minutes to present his/her ideas. After each panelist had made their presentation, panelists were allotted an addition two minutes to respond to what had been said or pose questions to each other.

Christian Parenti, a Soros Senior Justice Fellow and a Ford Foundation Fellow at the CUNY Graduate School's Center for Place, Culture, and Politics, has reported from both Iraq and Afghanistan. He opened by looking at terrorism in context of the conflict in Afghanistan.

"Al Qaeda does exist," said Parenti, "they began with the U.S. and Saudi help."

Al Qaeda is taking the form of a street gang Americans have grown aware of over the past twenty years. For Parenti this is a distributing trend that American strategists are failing to comprehend. This structure means less centralize control and greater possibilities for individuals to conduct their own personal campaigns against U.S. targets both inside the region and outside of it.

"What are we fighting a war for in Afghanistan?" he asked. Given that when it comes to eliminating the possibilities of terrorist acts, the war in Afghanistan isn't going in our favor, maybe more Americans need to start asking this question.

Parenti also brought up the fact that Al Qaeda and the Taliban have fundamental differences.

The Taliban are religious in their ideology but they are also a Pashtun nationalist movement. The Pashtun are the largest single ethnic group in Afghanistan, constituting approximately 40 percent of the population. The Pashtun have provided the central leadership for Afghanistan since the eighteenth century.

As such the Taliban are a nationalist movement that has little interest in what is going on outside their land, however they are fiercely committed to eradicating foreigner invaders from their soil.

Parenti cautioned participants about making blanked statements that paint the Taliban and al Qaeda as being one in the same as is often the case with the mainstream media as well as with leading defense spokespeople like Sec. Gates. Their core philosophies come from very different points of view and for the Taliban al Qaeda is another foreign occupational force.

Parenti when on to discuss the ties between the Taliban and Pakistan intelligence agencies. Just as the U.S. helped create the Taliban by arming the Mujahidin, Pakistan too was involved in their creation in a bid to gain strategic depth against long-time adversary India. In particular, Pakistan intelligence agencies uses Jihad groups like the Taliban to carry out terrorist attacks in India.

Thus, the recent military actions by the Pakistan army in Wazirstan on the Afghan border needs to be considered light of this fact and not simply as Pakistan support for U.S. interests in the region.

Pakistan Tribal areas

Map showing Taliban presence in North West Frontier Province, most of the areas of Taliban presence are FATA (Federally Administrated Tribal Areas), which are still not governed under Pakistan law. (Map produced by the BBC).

Narda Zacchino took the discussion in a very different direction as she laid out the story of Pat Tillman. Zacchino is a former associate editor for the Los Angeles Times and collaborated with Mary Tillman, Pat Tillman's mother, on the writing of Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman.

"What happened to Tillman totally fits because he was used by the U.S. government as a piece of propaganda," said Zacchino as she opened what is a very troubling story of human sacrifice, human error and politicians putting their self-interests before honesty.

"Tillman thought the war in Iraq was illegal and he told people so," said Zacchino. "He had read the Qur'an."

But the U.S. government and the Bush administration made Tillman into a national hero in order to stir up patriotism, support for the war, and anger against Islam. What we now know is that U.S. forces murdered Tillman and a cover up began immediately with General Stanley McCrystal playing a key role. While hundreds of e-mails from the Bush administration now document the gravity of the cover up and the manipulation of Tillman's death, "the truth will never come out," said Zacchino.

Pat Tillman
On April 21, 2004, while on a combat mission in Afghanistan, Pat was killed in a firefight. Immediately the army began a cover up operation with his superior officer burning the uniform Tillman had been wearing in direct defiance of Pentagon protocols and policy governing the procedures following the death of a U.S. serviceperson.

Tillman received three bullets to his head, which blew out the back of his skill and caused his brain to fall out. However, the field hospital reported that CPR was administered and claimed that he died three days later from the wounds he had received.

An autopsy conducted on Tillman's corpse showed signs of friendly fire and lead to accusations of gross negligence on the part of his commanding officers.

Tillman's family wasn't told for weeks the truth of the matter. With her suspicions aroused, his mother demanded answers from the army. As the story began to come out in bits and pieces, it became obvious that army's handling of her son's death is was something more than just incompetence. She became convinced that a conspiracy existed and that the Bush administration might have orchestrated Tillman's murder.

"What followed were several investigations, two Congressional hearings, and lots of unanswered questions," said Zacchino. She also pointed out that Gen. McCrystal was responsible for falsely awarding Tillman the Silver Star - given for gallantry in action against an enemy. Another example of how far the Bush administration was willing to go in using Tillman's death for their political gain.

Patricia Williams then pulled the audience back from the depravity of Tillman's murder to look at the theme of justice and how the war on terror has affected our sense of justice.

"Whole functions of our justice system have been removed from public view," she said.

Williams then cited the case of Jamie Leigh Jones, a 22-year old working for Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, "as a prime example of is going on in our outsourced military, prisons, and immigrant detention centers."

Patricia Williams and Narda Zacchino
Jones was gang-raped by KBR male employees in the Green Zone in Baghdad. Her rapists threw her into a dumpster where she laid for two days before she was found. When she reported the rape, KBR put her under guard in a shipping container with a bed and no running water. They warned her that if she left Iraq for medical treatment, she'd be out of a job. The company also refused to assist her in her case against the men who raped her.

Williams then took the participants on a visualization of the legal implications of this privatized government responsibility.

Telling the audience to imagine a cone on its side or a megaphone. At one end we have "I law" - narrow in scope, personal, and private. Then we have property law, followed by tort law that provides remedies for civil wrongs not arising out of contractual obligations. Next in our system of laws, we have crime and public order laws where the prosecutor is the state representing "we the people." Then we have the "big we" of our constitution and its promise of due process and the Bill of Rights. And finally the largest section of law affecting the most people are international conventions, like the Geneva Conventions or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that prohibit torture.

What privatization and out sourcing means is that much of this system of law is removed as companies are bound by contracts between them and the government. "Contract law is a narrow part of public law," she said, that removes many of the rights we are granted by the constitution.

For example, when we label someone an enemy combatant, we suspend due process and push them into a private track.

Another is example is the surveillance of private citizens that the Patriot Act permits. "Public interest as been privatized as well," said Williams, "as more and more jurisprudence is unpublished."

"The war on terror has allow the collection of data and we have very little control over it," she said. Our information is being mined and sold to private corporations with hardly any controls over what is done with that information.

William Greider took up the topic of the "long war" and how the Obama administration has dealt with it.

"Is it possible that Afghanistan will be the place were the Cold War psychosis is finally broken?" he asked.

While he has not made up his mind as to the answer, the situation is very different than wars of the past. "We are on the brink that a majority is tired of feudal wars," he said, "that is a relevant political fact we must take into consideration."

"Obama opened his presidency with a series of speeches that focused on our need to develop a different relationship with the rest of the world," Greider said. The world reaction to these speeches was positive, however "Obama made choices that continued down the some old patterns of behavior."

Greider pointed out a speech given by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that used the same idea as the domino theory that speculated that if one land in a region came under the influence of communism, then the surrounding countries would follow. In his speech, Gates connected al Qaeda to the Taliban, and that if the Taliban were successful, Pakistan would fall into disarray that in turn would create instability for all of central Asia. Same old Cold War ideology, only instead of communism now we are using terrorism.

"Americans realize that the resources need to the wars are needed at home," said Grieder. "Obama has begun to remove the classic trip wires of the Cold War." The challenge is to finally rid our foreign policy of this albatross of the past.

Grieder is convinced that "our bluff is being called in Afghanistan." Hopefully Obama will understand this in the next 18 months and start a new strategy to deal with the region.

Terrorism panel - Christian Parenti, Eyal Press, William Greider,
Particia Williams, Narda Zacchino
Press then announce the two-minute response times before opening it up to questions from the audience. He asked Parenti to address the Obama strategy for Afghanistan.

"The war is totally lost," responded Parenti. "The core problem is the government of Afghanistan is the most corrupt in the world."

Parenti then cited the fact 95% of Afghanistan's income comes from foreign aid and the vast majority of this aid isn't going to the Afghani people. The central government has no popular support.

As for Obama's recent announcement of sending 38,000 additional troops to Afghanistan - that's on top of the 65,000 already deployed. "I think this decision is pandering to swing votes in swing states," said Parenti, while Obama is loosing support from the progressives and independents in numbers that are greater than what he might gain in swing states.

"I think he (Obama) should pull out," he concluded.

Zacchino interjected "as much as I loathe the Taliban, it did bring order after the Russian left. Did Obama send this surge to bring them under control?"

Parenti responded that the recent Pakistan offensive was to do just that and we aren't sure of its outcomes. The possibility of U.S. troops making any different is unsure.

Press said he felt Obama's surge "was a huge gamble." He also raised the question of how far terrorism has receded from the minds of Americans because there has been no second attack on our soil. As such, terrorism is something that is far off and completes with other more pressing concerns like job losses and the economic crisis.

Williams returned the discussion back to the implications of the war on terror on human rights.

"How has it changed progressive's views of human rights?" she asked. "Can we recapture the principles progressives believe in?"

For Williams human rights have had a difficult time in the U.S. for some time now. Work on human rights has been mostly limited to the sex trade (women's rights) and free trade zones (workers rights) in the developing world.

"Enemy combatants reflect differently on us," she said.

William discussed the possibility of trails taking place in New York City against accused "terrorists" who have been dehumanized by the government and the mass media before the trials even begin. In particular, she pointed to comments made by Obama administration officials that the defendants "would be found guilty" and how that goes against the very core of our system of law in which the defendant is innocent until proven guilty.

For our democracy to endure, Williams feels that "the most horrendous acts are dealt with in a manner that honors our jurisprudence." Anything less will be a blow to our democratic principles and weaken our justice system.

The first question from the audience came from a former official of the ACLU in New York, who outlined what Obama had done good and then listed his failures. The question put to the panel was "Who is in charge of civil liberties policy in the Obama administration?"

Press responded citing the writings of Mark Danner. "Torture is not just a procedure, it is a political marker of how far a politician is willing to go," he said. "It is not clear how this plays with the American public."

Press the when on to discuss the need for a special commission that looks at what torture actually gained us as intelligence.

Williams thinks the people have spoken and "some sectors are outraged by the heavy handed profiling techniques being used against specific minority groups" here in the U.S. These techniques ensure that whole groups are cut off from the political discourse and are left voiceless as a result.

The next questioner asked: "How does this all relate to the hearts and minds of the people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and here at home?"

Grieder responded "I think it is a mistake to assume that American people want a stand up war in Afghanistan. People need to start standing up and saying: What are these dead soldiers buying?" Not much in his opinion.

Zacchino asked "why is it so important to win hearts and minds? They don't want us there!"

This response drew strong applause from the participants.

"We're not going to win. We need to get out of their county," she said.

Numerous other questions were posed to the panel including one rather violent outburst from a participant who had very strong opinions about the terrorism that had been waged against the middle class by the Bush administration and the economic crisis it created.

The next Nation cruise will take place September 26 - October 3, 2010, and will feature Jim Hightower and Judy Collins. The cruise will leave from New York and travel to Bermuda. More information will soon be available at http://www.nationcruise.com/

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