Tag Archives: Propaganda

On Torture Photos: The US Thinks You Can’t Handle the Truth

Originally published by ANewDomain.net:

America: land of the free and brave. But that’s not how your federal government sees you. It thinks Americans are too prissy and delicate to “handle the truth,” as Jack Nicholson’s character famously calls it in “A Few Good Men,” an otherwise stupid film.

Officially, of course, US government lawyers are arguing that releasing hundreds of photos depicting abuse of kidnapped Muslim detainees at US torture facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan would inflame terrorists and hand radical insurgent groups propaganda that they would use in order to recruit new members.

But that’s a pretty thin argument, given the fact that anti-American organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda are doing quite well as it is minus the photos.

What’s the real concern?

The real concern is pretty obvious: that if the American people were to see visual documentation of the horrific abuse inflicted by America’s armed forces and intelligence agents upon low-level insurgents, political dissidents and people who have absolutely nothing to do with politics, they might become so disgusted that they would demand substantial changes in American foreign policy – like accountability for torture, and turning off the flow of billions of dollars in our taxes to the Pentagon, CIA, NSA, and dozens of politically connected corporate contracting firms who own Congress and the White House.

The government has been sitting on thousands of photos that reportedly depict “sexual assault, soldiers posing with dead bodies, and other offenses” at US owned and run concentration camps in occupied Afghanistan and Iraq for over 10 years.

The Intercept reports:

Hellerstein first ordered the government to hand over a subset of the pictures in 2005 . President Obama decided to release them in 2009, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the top American general in Iraq implored him not to. Congress then passed a law amending the Freedom of Information Act to allow the Secretary of Defense to certify that publishing the pictures could put American lives at risk, which then-secretary Robert Gates did. The ACLU continued to fight the issue in court, and last August, Hellerstein ordered that the government needed to justify withholding each picture individually.”

The Pentagon claims that it took a look at all the pictures again, and decided – surprise surprise – that every single one of them should not be released.

In a hearing last week, Judge Hellerstein made clear that he was not satisfied by the government’s continued stonewalling. “It’s too easy and too meaningless,” he said about the government’s censor-it-all strategy.

torture-photos-abu-ghraibThe usual standard in such matters is public interest: is the material in question newsworthy? Clearly, in this case the answer is yes. National security is another consideration, but because the Obama administration has admitted that the United States is a torture nation, and the events in question have been widely reported in a number of news stories and books, it seems easily disposed of.

Even if and when the photos and videos of detainee abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq are released, one wonders whether media outlets will publish or broadcast them. Many of the worst photographs from Abu Ghraib never showed up in print. If anything, the media is engaging in even more self-censorship than during the Bush years. Case in point: the only major media outlet to post last week’s propaganda video by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria burning a captured Jordanian pilot to death was Fox News.

But instead of being praised for refusing to separate news consumers from the news, the network got slammed for aiding and abetting terrorism: ” are literally – literally – working for Al Qaeda and ISIS’ media arm,” Rick Nelson, a senior associate in homeland security and terrorism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Guardian. “They might as well start sending them royalty checks.”

(One wonders if Nelson’s supervisors at CSIS are aware of their employee’s ignorance about radical Islamism; Al Qaeda and ISIS do not work together, but are bitter rivals.)

In a separate case late last year, a federal district court rejected the Obama administration’s refusal to release 28 videotapes showing the brutal force-feeding of a Guantánamo hunger striker. Again, the government had argued that the videos risked inflaming anti-Americanism.

I am not insensitive to the concern that the United States, its armed forces and its civilian citizens are at greater risk of attack as the result of its torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Seems to me, however, that continuing to stonewall and cover up photographic evidence of these heinous crimes — even though, as a cartoonist, I understand that a picture really can be worth 1000 words — isn’t the solution.

Besides, those photos belong to you and me. They were taken by US government employees, on the clock, carrying out duties that they were ordered to do, in many cases using government-owned equipment.

If torture of Muslims is the problem, the United States government should commit itself to no longer torturing Muslims. To be taken seriously, such a change of policy would necessitate closing the torture camps, releasing all the detainees, investigating allegations of torture and prosecuting those responsible from the low-level prison guards to the lawyers and top government officials who were aware of and authorized their actions – and those investigations require the complete airing of all evidence, including the photos in question here.

Torture photos are not the biggest threat to national security; Being a country that tortures is. Or, to put it the same way that government defenders of the NSA’s intrusive surveillance of the private lives of the American people do, you don’t have anything to worry about if you aren’t doing anything wrong.


What Is ISIS Thinking? Deconstructing the Pilot Immolation Video

Originally published at ANewDomain.net:

What is ISIS thinking? Last week’s release of a video depicting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) execution by the burning alive of a captured Jordanian pilot has many in the West wondering if the self-proclaimed restoration of the Islamic caliphate has lost its collective mind.

Certainly there is something novel about this cruelly medieval killing being presented using the latest modern technology, filled with high-resolution cameras and disseminated via social media outlets backed by billion-dollar corporations.

Furthermore, the political implications have been explosive. In just one week of executions ISIS’ leadership has managed to rile up the populations of two countries: Jordan, whose “Arab Street” had previously been less than wildly enthusiastic about the Hashemite kingdom’s role in the US-led anti-ISIS air campaign and is now screaming for revenge; and Japan, whose citizens were so shocked and angered by the beheading of two journalists that popular opinion is calling for re-militarization for the first time since the Second World War.

But it’s safe to say that ISIS’ leadership, though more than willing to embrace small-scale murder as well as ethnic cleansing, has made a calculated decision in which Jordan, Japan and indeed the Western world are relatively minor considerations compared to their main objective: defining themselves as the world’s leading, and strongest, opposing force to the United States and its allies in what since 9/11 has been dubbed the Global War on Terror.

Western media outlets have limited their coverage of the execution of Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh to the way he was killed: placed inside what looks like a bear cage, soaked in kerosene, a line of kerosene leading out to a spot where, like a villain in an old movie, a masked executioner lights it with a torch.

The camera follows the flame to the doomed pilot, who screams and flails before succumbing to his horrific death.

What these reports leave out is the way that the video frames this dénouement: as righteous, just retribution against a man they describe as a traitor against Islam, a volunteer lackey of the United States and the West, who had rained death and destruction upon innocent men, women and children via bombs dropped from his fighter jet safely soaring thousands of feet overhead.

The video is not a depiction of wanton violence meant simply to terrorize, but rather an indictment, an attempt to lay out the case to justify the execution.

“The fiery death of pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh is the relatively brief climax in a 22-minute film narrative that imitates the production values of documentaries aired on outlets like the History Channel,” Loren Thompson writes in Forbes. “It is crafted as a morality play featuring an extended monologue by the captured pilot in which he details how the coalition of Western countries and local Arab states wages its air war against ISIS.  After describing the military systems being used and the bases from which they originate, the video shows searing images of civilians who allegedly have been killed or injured by coalition bombs — many of them children.”


The 22 1/2 minute video opens with the King of Jordan, Abdullah II, being interviewed by Charlie Rose about the anti-ISIS air campaign. (He is described as a “taghut,” an Arabic word that roughly translates to “apostate.”)

“We said to all the pilots, for the airstrikes against ISIS, we are only looking for volunteers,” Abdullah says. “So anybody who wants to volunteer, please step forward. Every single pilot raised his hand and stepped forward.”

The implication is obvious: the lieutenant we are about to watch being immolated wasn’t drafted. He wasn’t just following orders. He voluntarily agreed to be part of an air campaign that, to date, has included at least 16,000 airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which have killed and wounded an unknown number of fighters as well as civilians. He is thus responsible for his actions.

This is justice, they imply.


Next we see a series of quick cuts of war, some apparently from Hollywood film productions. Then we move to an image of King Abdullah next to President Barack Obama.


This is part two of ISIS’ indictment: against Jordan as a nation, for aligning itself with not a non-Muslim country, but one that has invaded Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and waged bombing campaigns against Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Syria, not to mention kidnapping and torturing Muslims at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and elsewhere. This reminder, it is safe to assume, plays well among many Muslims.

We see images of Jordanian generals and other members of the armed forces palling around with their American counterparts, firing missiles and dropping bombs and shooting at Muslim civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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As a narrator continues to read calmly, the pilot makes his first appearance in a series of newscasts pulled from throughout the region, subtly noting the panic in those descriptions of his crashed plane, lost in ISIS-controlled territory.


As usual, the ISIS captive is forced to wear an orange jumpsuit reminiscent of those that became famous because detainees captured by the Bush administration were forced to wear them at Guantánamo Bay and other extrajudicial detention facilities. Make no mistake: this is a direct attempt at equivalence. More to the point, for the Muslims they are hoping to recruit using these videos, they are extolling the virtues of revenge: After 14 years of repeated humiliations by the US against Muslims, they are finally striking back, an eye for an eye, a jumpsuit for a jumpsuit.


At length and in great detail, Lt. al-Kaseasbeh describes his target, the mission, the specific laser guided bombs he was charged with dropping, and the other countries – the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia – that participated in that sortie.

His “testimony” accounts for almost half of the video. What follows is a series of images interspersed images: videotapes of bombs being dropped as seen from in-flight computers, a severely wounded Arab child, more bombings as seen from above, another wounded child, over and over again. The message is clear: this Jordanian pilot is guilty of wounding and killing innocent children.

Finally, seven minutes before the end of the video, we see the lieutenant walking by himself past a line of masked ISIS fighters. Lest you miss the point, this last walk is interspersed with images of bombs falling on civilian targets, pilots climbing into their jets, rubble, civilians being pulled out from shattered buildings. The impression is of the condemned man experiencing his sins through flashback as he prepares to meet judgment.


Things get quiet. Aside from random background noise, wind, there’s no talking. Cinematically, the video’s producers slowly bring up the sound of a beating heart, faster and faster. He’s already covered with kerosene. The executioner lights his torch.


The death is, as reported elsewhere previously, gruesome and horrible.

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Afterwards, an earthmover dumps soil and debris on top of the cage and the charred corpse, and pushes them into the ground and covers them up. The video’s producers are crystal clear in their message: Just as the anti-ISIS bombing campaign is reducing buildings in their territory to rubble, and killing people, they’re doing the same thing to the pilot that they captured.

Finally, the narrator notes that ISIS has the names and photographs of pilots and declares them wanted men, going so far as to offer an award of “100 gold dinars to whoever kills a Crusader pilot.”

Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, a member of an anti-Assad militant group inside Syria told the International Business Times: “Today when I saw the video I was really, really shocked. I didn’t imagine ISIS would do that. There is nothing like this in Islam and the ISIS say they are just living under the rule of Islam. But they judge you like this: ‘If someone bombs your families and women and children and burns them with these bombs, you must burn him.’”


No matter where they stand on this issue, Americans should understand that ISIS sees itself not as aggressors but as victims. In the territory that it controls, yes, they have carried out numerous atrocities. But they have never attacked the West. There has never been an ISIS-backed terrorist act anywhere in the world.

As they see it, the West is attacking them for challenging corrupt secular regimes in Syria and Iraq, and for trying to restore a fundamentalist caliphate that returns Islam to its pure original form.

While it is easy to dismiss ISIS as wild-eyed extremists for whom violence is its own reward, as many Western commentators do, that’s neither the way that they see themselves or – more importantly – the way that they seek to be portrayed to their target audience, Muslims are angry at the West but have not yet undertaken the path of radical jihad against it. This execution video is merely the latest entry in a propaganda war that, like it or not, ISIS appears to be winning.

Burning with Rage at The Other

Americans were shocked by a video released by the Islamic State depicting the execution by immolation of a captured Jordanian pilot. But the United States burned many, many Iraqis to death in 2004 – and nobody cared. Why the different reactions?

No Protection

Obama says the US should resume bombing Iraq, and send troops back there, in order to protect diplomatic personnel and troops who remained there after the occupation was nominally ended. By this logic, the United States can invade any country with Americans in it.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Coverage of the anti-NSA Protest is an Example of a New Way to Disseminate Government BS

Redirection to Water Down the Potency of Dissent

On Saturday, October 26th several thousand people gathered near the Capitol Building in Washington to protest National Security Agency spying against Americans. As juicy news, it didn’t amount to much: no violence, no surprises. Politically, it marked an unusual coalition between the civil liberties Left and the libertarian Right, as members of the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements stood side by side. But that’s not how it was framed.

The way U.S. media outlets chose to cover the march provides a fascinating window into a form of censorship they often use but we rarely notice: redirection.

The message of the marchers was straightforward. According to the British wire service Reuters, the protesters carried signs that read “Stop Mass Spying,” “Thank you, Edward Snowden” and “Unplug Big Brother.”

USA Today reported another sign —  “No NSA mass spying” — and that  marchers chanted “no secret courts” and “Hey hey, ho ho, the NSA has got to go.”

The message of the marchers was unambiguous: they demanded that the NSA stop spying on Americans, or be shut down. If the signs and the slogans and the things marchers said weren’t clear — “this isn’t about right and left — it’s about right and wrong,” USA Today quoted Craig Aaron — the group that organized the event is called “Stop Watching Us.”

Not “Keep Watching Us, Albeit With Increased Congressional Oversight.”

Stop laughing. I know, I know, no one in the history of protest marches has ever called for half-measures. U.S. Partly Out of Vietnam! Somewhat Equal Rights for Women!

Yet that’s how the media covered the anti-NSA event.

First line of USA Today‘s piece: “Thousands rallied against NSA’s domestic and international surveillance on Saturday by marching to the Capitol and calling for closer scrutiny of the agency as more details of its spying are leaked.” [My italics, added for emphasis.]

Associated Press headline: “NSA spying threatens U.S. foreign policy; protesters demand investigation of mass surveillance.”

MSNBC: “‘Stop Watching Us’ sees a chance to reform the NSA”

It is true that “Stop Watching Us” sent a letter to Congress. But there’s no way for a fluent English speaker to interpret their statement as “calling for closer scrutiny” or “reforming” the NSA. “We are calling on Congress,” the group wrote, “to take immediate action to halt this surveillance and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s and the FBI’s data collection programs.”


“Stop Watching Us” didn’t call for “reform.” Nor did the October 26th matchers. They called for the NSA to stop spying on Americans. Some of them called for the NSA to be closed.

No one called for less than a 100% end to domestic surveillance.

USA Today lied about the rally. So did the AP. As did MSNBC.

They did it by redirecting a radical, revolutionary impulse into a moderate, reformist tendency.

The U.S. is an authoritarian police state with democratic window-dressing. Stopping NSA spying on Americans would fundamentally change the system. There’s no way the government, or its mainstream media outlets, would voluntarily give up their info trolling. What they might do, however, is “pull this back,” as Al Gore said. “I think you will see a reining in.”

Categorizing strong political views of swaths of Americans as weaker, more moderate and watered down than they really are is a relatively new tactic for American media gatekeepers. Until recently, the standard tool of the U.S. censor when confronting dissent was to ignore it entirely (c.f., the 2003 protest marches against the invasion of Iraq and the long time it took for them to cover the Occupy movement of 2011). For activist groups and protesters, this might seem like an improvement. Which is what makes it pernicious.

Getting covered by the media isn’t always better than being ignored. If your radical politics get expressed in public as moderate reformism — and you tacitly acquiesce with this misrepresentation by your silent cooperation — you’re serving the interests of the system you oppose, making it appear open to reform and reasonable, and you less angry than you really are, though neither is true.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. Go there to join the Ted Rall Subscription Service and receive all of Ted’s cartoons and columns by email.)


SYNDICATED COLUMN: Get Pissed Off and Break Things



Why Are Americans So Passive?

There’s a reason “Keep Calm and Carry On” is everywhere. When people lose everything — their economic aspirations, their freedom, their privacy — when there’s nothing they can do to restore what they’ve lost — all they have left is dignity.

Remember Saddam? Seconds before he was hanged, disheveled and disrespected, the deposed dictator held his head high, his eyes blazing with contempt as he spat sarcastic insults at his executioners. He “faced death like a lion,” said his supposed body double, Latif Yahia, and no one could argue. He left this life with the one thing he could control intact.

Dignity. That’s what “Keep Calm and Carry On” is all about. That’s what we think of when we think of the Battle of Britain. As German bombs rained down, the English went about their business. Like the iconic photo of the milkman tiptoeing over rubble. Like the bomb-damaged stores whose shopkeepers posted signs that read “We are still open — more open than usual.”

Man, that is so not us.

You’ve seen the T-shirts, with their clean Gill Sans-esque lettering and iconic crown. There are mugs, postcards and posters. Of course. It’s a reproduction of a propaganda poster from World War II, an (unsuccessful, because it wasn’t distributed) attempt by the British government to steel jittery citizens during the Blitz.

“Keep Calm and Carry On” merch dates to 2000 but really took off after 9/11; the popularity of the image, the stoicism of its call to stiffen upper lips everywhere, and numerous parodies (“Stay Alive and Kill Zombies”) has generated millions of dollars of profits, inevitably sparking lawsuits and inspiring a song by John Nolan.

Why is a meme originally prepared for a possible German invasion of the UK (which is why it wasn’t released) popular now? Zizi Papacharissi, communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, points to the crappy economy. “We are undergoing a profound and fairly global economic crisis, so it is natural to revisit the saying: Keep calm and carry on. It reminds us of courage shown back then, and how courage shown helped people pluck through a crisis.”

It’s also a reaction to terrorism — or more accurately a reaction to the initial reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks: hysteria, jingoism, multiple wars of choice, all doomed. More than any other factor, Obama owed his 2008 victory to his (Maureen Dowd called him) Vulcan personality: cool, implacable, possibly non-sentient, the anti-Dubya.

What wouldn’t we give for a 2001 do-over? No invasions, no Patriot Act, no Gitmo, no “extraordinary renditions,” no New York Times op-ed pieces arguing in favor of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Treat 9/11 like a crime, let the FBI go after the perps. Reach out to Muslims, reconsider our carte blanche to Israel, and most of all: go slow. Don’t freak out.

Perspective: 3,000 deaths is awful. 9/11 was shocking. We killed 2 million Vietnamese people, yet they’re going strong. With a minimum of whining.

And yet…

Sometimes you need some perspective to your perspective.

There are times when it’s appropriate to freak out. When, in fact, it’s downright weird and unhealthy and wrong not to flip your lid. For example, when you get diagnosed with a terrible disease. When someone you love dies.

There are also times when big-picture, impersonal stuff, including politics and the economy, ought to make you crazy with rage or grief or…something. Not nothing. Not just keeping calm and carrying on.

Keeping calm and carrying on was an appropriate response to the Blitz.  Short of moving away from the targeted area, there’s nothing you can do about bombs. Living or dying is a matter of happenstance. Keeping calm might help you make smart decisions. Panic is usually more dangerous than self-control.

The same is true of terrorism. Terrorists will kill you, or not — probably not. You can’t fix your fate.

But that is decidedly not true about the economy. Not when what is wrong with the economy is not something no one can control — a giant meteor, bad weather, panic in the markets — but something that most assuredly can and indeed should be, like the systemic transfer of wealth from the poor and middle-class to the rich that has characterized the class divide in Western nations since the 1970s. The appropriate, intelligent and self-preserving response to mass theft is rage, demands for action, and decisive punishment of political and economic leaders who refuse to change things.

As one revelation about the National Security Agency’s spying follows another, the “Keep Calm and Carry On” meme seems less like an appeal to dignity and calm reserve than the much older, classic response of the power elite to their oppressed subjects: Shut the Fuck Up.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in March 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)


Now Let’s Turn to Politics

After decades of Republican aggression and Democratic passivity, the 50-yard line of American politics has shifted so far to the right that what passes for the debate takes place only between the far right and the even further right.

Say Anything

As Republicans switch their talking points back and forth over taxes and Obamacare, it’s worth remembering that this is merely the latest example of their willingness to say and do anything to get their way in an argument.

Pretty Flowers

Sanctions against Iran for its alleged nuclear weapons development program are hitting hard, leaving Iranian oil to pile up at ports. What if it were the other way around?