Michael Brownstein on MEDITATION AS A SUBVERSIVE ACTIVITY (Arthur No. 15/Feb 2005)

Artwork by John Coulthart, from Arthur No. 15/Feb 2005

What does meditation have to do with activism?
Plenty, says poet Michael Brownstein

I’ve been a Buddhist for many years, and I am also an activist, committed to overturning the profit-driven monoculture which is destroying our health, our Earth, and our soul. How are these two forms of awareness—awareness of what’s taking place in the outside world, and awareness of our internal processes—related? Can each aid the other in creating a sane, sustainable and just world?

Let’s look at activism in terms of the negative emotions generated—indignation and rage, but also frustration, sorrow, resignation. These are negative emotions because of the effect they have on us, the people who experience them. Not on the object of our emotions, whether it be the World Trade Organization, Monsanto, or George Bush. Negative emotions are reactive. Their only impact is on us. What difference does it make to Monsanto that you’re seething with indignation at something it has done or said? What difference does it make to the Pacific Lumber Company when you come upon a clear-cut old-growth forest in California and feel devastated?

Staying present with our emotions—anger, for example—means remaining aware of what we’re experiencing without becoming lost in reactivity. It means liberating the energy generated by anger from the object that calls it forth. In other words, it is a form of meditation. Then, the possibility exists to work with the situation from a place of clarity, rather than be submerged in confusion.

So, the first revolutionary act—or fact—about meditation is that it puts you in touch with what you’re feeling and thinking at this very moment. It puts you in touch with presence. Then you realize that you are the source of your emotions—not Monsanto or McDonald’s. This does not imply that we shouldn’t have these responses, but that we have to use them rather than be used by them. And the only way to do that is to become aware of their nature. Continue reading

Terrorist Triage

Why are the presidential candidates—and so many counterterrorism experts—afraid to say that the Al Qaeda threat is overrated?

Christopher Dickey
Updated: 9:32 AM ET May 6, 2008

Michael Sheehan is on a one-man mission to put terrorist threats into perspective, which is a place they’ve rarely or ever been before. Already you can see it’s going to be a hard slog. Fighting the inflated menace of Osama bin Laden has become big business, generating hundreds of billions of dollars for government agencies and contractors in what one friend of mine in the Washington policy-making stratosphere calls “the counterterrorist-industrial complex.”

But Sheehan’s got the kind of credentials that ought to make us stop and listen. He was a U.S. Army Green Beret fighting guerrillas in Central America in the 1980s, he served on the National Security Council staff under both President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton, and he held the post of ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism from 1998 to 2000.

In those days Sheehan was among that persistent, relentless and finally shrill chorus of voices trying to warn the Clinton administration that Osama bin Laden and his boys represented a horrific danger to the United States and its interests. Days after the October 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen that killed 17 American sailors, experienced analysts like Sheehan at the State Department and Richard A. Clarke at the White House were certain Al Qaeda was behind it, but there was no support for retaliation among the Clintonistas or, even less, the Pentagon.

Clarke later wrote vividly about Sheehan’s reaction after the military brass begged off. “Who the s— do they think attacked the Cole, f—in’ Martians?” Sheehan asked Clarke. “Does Al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon to get their attention?”

We all know the answer to that question, of course. But what’s interesting is not that Sheehan was so right, for all the good it did, or that President Bill Clinton and then President George W. Bush were so wrong not to pay attention. What’s interesting is Sheehan’s argument now that Al Qaeda just isn’t the existential-twilight-struggle threat it’s often cracked up to be. Hence the subtitle of his new book, “Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves” (Crown, 2008).

The ideas Sheehan puts forth in a text as easy to read as a Power Point should be central to every security debate in the current presidential campaign. But given the personality politics that have dominated the race so far, that seems unlikely. Once again it’s up to the public to figure these things out for itself.

“I want people to understand what the real threat is and what’s a bunch of bull,” Sheehan told me when I tracked him down a few days ago in one of those Middle Eastern hotel lobbies where you sip orange juice and lemonade at cocktail time. (He asked me not to say where, precisely, since the government he’s now advising on policing and terrorism puts a high premium on discretion.)

Before September 11, said Sheehan, the United States was “asleep at the switch” while Al Qaeda was barreling down the track. “If you don’t pay attention to these guys,” said Sheehan, “they will kill you in big numbers.” So bin Laden’s minions hit U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, they hit the Cole in 2000, and they hit New York and Washington in 2001—three major attacks on American targets in the space of 37 months. Since then, not one. And not for want of trying on their part.

What changed? The difference is purely and simply that intelligence agencies, law enforcement and the military have focused their attention on the threat, crushed the operational cells they could find—which were in fact the key ones plotting and executing major attacks—and put enormous pressure on all the rest.

“I reject the notion that Al Qaeda is waiting for ‘the big one’ or holding back an attack,” Sheehan writes. “A terrorist cell capable of attacking doesn’t sit and wait for some more opportune moment. It’s not their style, nor is it in the best interest of their operational security. Delaying an attack gives law enforcement more time to detect a plot or penetrate the organization.”

Terrorism is not about standing armies, mass movements, riots in the streets or even palace coups. It’s about tiny groups that want to make a big bang. So you keep tracking cells and potential cells, and when you find them you destroy them. After Spanish police cornered leading members of the group that attacked trains in Madrid in 2004, they blew themselves up. The threat in Spain declined dramatically.

Indonesia is another case Sheehan and I talked about. Several high-profile associates of bin Laden were nailed there in the two years after 9/11, then sent off to secret CIA prisons for interrogation. The suspects are now at Guantánamo. But suicide bombings continued until police using forensic evidence—pieces of car bombs and pieces of the suicide bombers—tracked down Dr. Azahari bin Husin, “the Demolition Man,” and the little group around him. In a November 2005 shootout the cops killed Dr. Azahari and crushed his cell. After that such attacks in Indonesia stopped.

The drive to obliterate the remaining hives of Al Qaeda training activity along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier and those that developed in some corners of Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 needs to continue, says Sheehan. It’s especially important to keep wanna-be jihadists in the West from joining with more experienced fighters who can give them hands-on weapons and explosives training. When left to their own devices, as it were, most homegrown terrorists can’t cut it. For example, on July 7, 2005, four bombers blew themselves up on public transport in London, killing 56 people. Two of those bombers had trained in Pakistan. Another cell tried to do the same thing two weeks later, but its members had less foreign training, or none. All the bombs were duds.

Sheehan’s perspective is clearly influenced by the three years he spent, from 2003 to 2006, as deputy commissioner for counterterrorism at the New York City Police Department. There, working with Commissioner Ray Kelly and David Cohen, the former CIA operations chief who heads the NYPD’s intelligence division, Sheehan helped build what’s regarded as one of the most effective terrorist-fighting organizations in the United States. Radicals and crazies of many different stripes have targeted the city repeatedly over the last century, from alleged Reds to Black Blocs, from Puerto Rican nationalists and a “mad bomber” to Al Qaeda’s aspiring martyrs. But the police have limited resources, so they’ve learned the art of terrorist triage, focusing on what’s real and wasting little time and money on what’s merely imagined.

“Even in 2003, less than two years after 9/11, I told Kelly and Cohen that I thought Al Qaeda was simply not very good,” Sheehan writes in his book. Bin Laden’s acolytes “were a small and determined group of killers, but under the withering heat of the post-9/11 environment, they were simply not getting it done … I said what nobody else was saying: we underestimated Al Qaeda’s capabilities before 9/11 and overestimated them after. This seemed to catch both Kelly and Cohen a bit by surprise, and I agreed not to discuss my feelings in public. The likelihood for misinterpretation was much too high.”

It still is. At the Global Leadership Forum co-sponsored by NEWSWEEK at the Royal United Services Institute in London last week, the experts and dignitaries didn’t want to risk dissing Al Qaeda, even when their learned presentations came to much the same conclusions as Sheehan.

The British Tories’ shadow security minister, Pauline Neville-Jones, dismissed overblown American rhetoric: “We don’t use the language of the Global War on Terror,” said the baroness. “We actively eschew it.” The American security expert Ashton Carter agreed. “It’s not a war,” said the former assistant secretary of defense, who is now an important Hillary Clinton supporter. “It’s a matter of law enforcement and intelligence, of Homeland Security hardening the target.” The military focus, he suggested, should be on special ops.

Sir David Omand, who used to head Britain’s version of the National Security Agency and oversaw its entire intelligence establishment from the Cabinet Office earlier this decade, described terrorism as “one corner” of the global security threat posed by weapons proliferation and political instability. That in turn is only one of three major dangers facing the world over the next few years. The others are the deteriorating environment and a meltdown of the global economy. Putting terrorism in perspective, said Sir David, “leads naturally to a risk management approach, which is very different from what we’ve heard from Washington these last few years, which is to ‘eliminate the threat’.”

Yet when I asked the panelists at the forum if Al Qaeda has been overrated, suggesting as Sheehan does that most of its recruits are bunglers, all shook their heads. Nobody wants to say such a thing on the record, in case there’s another attack tomorrow and their remarks get quoted back to them.

That’s part of what makes Sheehan so refreshing. He knows there’s a big risk that he’ll be misinterpreted; he’ll be called soft on terror by ass-covering bureaucrats, breathless reporters and fear-peddling politicians. And yet he charges ahead. He expects another attack sometime, somewhere. He hopes it won’t be made to seem more apocalyptic than it is. “Don’t overhype it, because that’s what Al Qaeda wants you to do. Terrorism is about psychology.” In the meantime, said Sheehan, finishing his fruit juice, “the relentless 24/7 job for people like me is to find and crush those guys.”

As I headed into the parking lot, watching a storm blow in off the desert, it occurred to me that one day in the not too distant future the inability of these terrorist groups to act effectively will discredit them and the movement they claim to represent. If they did succeed with a new attack and the public and media brushed it off after a couple of news cycles, that would discredit them still more. The psychological victory would be ours for a change, and not only in our own societies but very likely in theirs. Or, to paraphrase an old Army dictum, if you crush the cells, the hearts and minds will follow.

In a similar vein (and way back in 2004): The Power of Nightmares.

Paging Godsmack

Army Seeks “Professional Celebrity Rock Music Band”

By Noah Shachtman

It’s not completely surprising that the Army wants to hire a band to tour its bases in Afghanistan and Kuwait. The armed services get all kinds of folks, to entertain the troops. “But it’s the way that they solicit for rock bands that makes the whole thing hilarious,” Stephen Trimble notes.

First, a summary of what the Army is seeking:

Professional Celebrity Rock Music Band, group not to exceed seven people for tour of FOB’s [forward operating bases] in Kuwait and Afghanistan for February 4-13 2008. The band should be an active rock band, with a music genre consisting of Southern Rock, Pop Rock, Post-Grunge and Hard Rock. At least one member of the band should be recognizable as a professional celebrity. Protective military equipment, such as kevlar, body armour, eye and ear protection will be provided when the group is travelling on military rotary or fixed wing aircraft.

Then, there’s the highly-calibrated method the service will use to evaluate these Professional Celebrity Rock Music Band applicants. The contract will be awarded based on “Past Performance, Contractor Capability, Contractor’s Experience, Celebrity Status of the Proposed Artists, and Price. Contractor Capability, Experience, and Price. The celebrity status of the proposed artist is slightly more important than these 3 combined, and all 4 combined are slightly more important than Price.”

More at Wired.

Articles of faith

When two eminent US scholars wrote about the ‘Israel lobby’ they were vilified by colleagues and the Washington Post. This week Barack Obama joined the attack. Ed Pilkington hears their story

Ed Pilkington
Saturday September 15, 2007
The Guardian

Given the reception John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt received for their London Review of Books essay last year on what they called the Israel Lobby, it would have been understandable had they crawled away to a dark corner of their respective academic institutions to lick their wounds. Their argument that US foreign policy has been distorted by the stultifying power of pro-Israeli groups and individuals was met with a firestorm of protest that has smouldered ever since.

The authors were assailed with headlines such as the Washington Post’s: “Yes, it’s anti-semitic.” The neocon pundit William Kristol accused them in the Wall Street Journal of “anti-Judaism” while the New York Sun linked them with the white supremacist David Duke.

The row became a focal point of a much wider debate about the limits of permitted criticism of the state of Israel and its American-based supporters that has ensnared several academics and writers, including a former president. Jimmy Carter was castigated earlier this year when he published a plea for a renewed engagement in the Middle-East peace process under the admittedly provocative title, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. He was labelled an anti-semitic “Jew hater” and even a Nazi sympathiser. Meanwhile, a British-born historian at New York University, Tony Judt, has been warned off or disinvited from four academic events in the past year. On one occasion, he was asked to promise not to mention Israel in a speech on the Holocaust. He refused.

For Walt, the explosion of criticism after the LRB publication in March 2006 struck particularly close to home as two members of his own Harvard faculty turned on him. Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish literature, compared Walt and his University of Chicago co-author’s work to that of a notorious 19th-century German anti-semite. Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard criminal law professor who represented OJ Simpson, charged them with culling some of their references from neo-Nazi websites.

Given the battering he has taken, Walt is remarkably upbeat. “We were surprised by how nasty it got,” says the Harvard professor. “The David Duke reference, the neo-Nazi websites – these were intended to smear us and swing attention on to us rather than to what we were saying. It wasn’t pleasant, but it never made me doubt what we had written or doubt myself.” Standing tall in the face of attack is one thing; to raise your head above the parapet for a second round is quite another. But that is what the Mearsheimer/Walt double act are doing: they have gone on the offensive with the publication of a book-length version of their original treatise.

As night follows day, the dispute has started anew. The New York Sun has dedicated a section of its website to the controversy; Dershowitz has revved up again, calling the book “a bigoted attack on the American Jewish community”; and Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, has gone to the trouble of writing his own book in riposte – and it’s in the bookshops a week before The Israel Lobby appears.

There is one obvious question to put to Walt: why do it to yourself? Wasn’t one stoning enough? “We did ask ourselves, did we want to go through this again?” he admits, but only to add: “It didn’t take us all that long to figure out we had more to say and it was our job to say it.”

By writing a 496-page book, as opposed to the original article’s mere 13,000 words, the authors hope to present a more nuanced version of their case. They have taken in new examples to support their thesis, notably the second Lebanon war, which broke out in the interim, and have sought to address some of the points raised by critics.

The book follows the structure of the original article fairly faithfully, and its argument can be summarised thus: in recent years the US government has given Israel unconditional support, showering it with $3bn a year irrespective of the human rights violations it inflicts on the Palestinians. It was not always this way – think of the Suez crisis of 1956 when America stepped in to frustrate Israel’s (and Britain’s) ambitions. But from the 1960s onwards the relationship deepened to the extent that today American and Israeli interests are deemed by many Americans to be essentially identical.

The authors ask why this is the case, and argue that strategically there is no reason for it. The end of the cold war removed a central justification for the special relationship, as Israel no longer provided the US with a barrier to communism in the region. Post 9/11, the US and Israel are presented as partners against terrorism, but America’s vulnerability to attack partly stems from its support for Israel, which has provoked hostility in the Muslim world. Nor is there a moral argument for indiscriminately backing Israel – as a towering military presence in the Middle East, Israel is no longer under existential threat.

So what explains this ongoing largesse? The authors conclude that the answer lies with the Israel lobby, a loose coalition of individuals and organisations that wants US leaders to treat Israel as though it were the 51st state. The lobby stifles debate, inhibits criticism of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and maintains the special relationship despite the fact that it has become a liability both for the US and for Israel itself.

In its transition from literary journal essay to stand-alone book, the authors have made a few telling alterations of presentation and emphasis. The most vivid is that in the body of the text they have demoted lobby to lower case: the Israel Lobby has become the Israel lobby. Walt sees that as the most minor of changes, remarking that: “John and I don’t even remember how the capital L got used in the first place.”

More substantially, perhaps, they have used the extra space to make several robust disclaimers, insisting that they have never questioned the right of Israel to exist or the legitimacy of the Israel lobby itself. They have also filed down some of the more jagged edges of their argument, such as their position on the role the lobby played in the build-up to the Iraq war. They still maintain that the war would “almost certainly not have occurred” were it not for the Israel lobby, but they soften the claim by adding that America’s belligerent mood in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington also had much to do with it.

Such nuances make for a more sophisticated read, but they fall far short of the revisions – the authors would say capitulations – that would be needed to satisfy their detractors.

Foxman is one of the most vocal critics. His new book, timed specifically to counteract the arrival on bookshelves of The Israel Lobby, pulls no punches. Its title is representative of the tone of the book: The Deadliest Lies. “This is a big lie that the Jewish people have lived with throughout history,” he tells me from his New York office. “Up to now these anti-semitic canards have been heard on the fringes, but to have two respected academics repeat them legitimises the debate and penetrates the mainstream.”

More measured – though still forceful – criticism of the Mearsheimer and Walt book has come from those titans of US journalism, the New York Times and the New Yorker. The Times’ book critic William Grimes takes a swipe at the authors’ claim that it is time for the US to treat Israel as a normal country: “But it’s not. And America won’t. That’s realism.” David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, suggests none too flatteringly that the book is symptomatic of a polarised era in which Americans are searching for an explanation to the evils of the times.

In the swirl of debate, the squabbling parties keep coming back to the core concept of an Israel lobby, case notwithstanding. The authors have been meticulously careful in the book to stress that they see the lobby as a loose coalition. It is not a single, unified movement and it is certainly not a cabal or conspiracy. Yet no matter how profuse their disclaimers, they have not assuaged those antagonists for whom any lumping together of Jews or Jewish interest groups sets alarm bells ringing. “Visit any anti-semitic website and you’ll hear the same old themes: the Jews have too much power; they exercise political influence not as individual citizens but as a cabal,” writes Foxman. “Walt and Mearsheimer sound all the same notes, with a subtlety and pseudo-scholarly style that makes their poison all the more dangerous.”

In our conversation, Walt accepts the phrase “the lobby” is “an awkward term as many of the groups and people in it don’t operate on Capitol Hill. It’s shorthand – you could call it the pro-Israel movement”. One wonders why he and his co-author have stuck with it, then, when it has allowed their detractors to smear other more credible parts of their argument.

Take the slanging match over the causes of the Iraq war. Walt and Mearsheimer rightly lay a large part of the blame for this disastrous escapade on the neoconservatives within the Bush administration, but they then go on to define those neocons as an integral part of the Israel lobby. Books have been written about the various motivations of the neocons. Sympathy for Israel is one, but there are many others – the desire to spread democracy, a belief in the positive uses of military intervention, denigration of international institutions. To suggest that the neocons and the Israel lobby are one and the same is a conflation too far.

But the authors have brought into the open aspects of American intellectual life that needed airing. They cast light on the overweening activities of specific pro-Israeli groups, most importantly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Aipac is a self-avowed lobby (it calls itself America’s pro-Israel lobby) and has been ranked the second most powerful such body in the US. With a staff of more than 150 and a budget of $60m, it wields extensive influence among Congressmen, working to ensure criticism of Israel is rarely aired on Capitol Hill. The Guardian invited it to comment, but it declined.

Though Foxman insists the furore is proof that debate is alive and kicking, Walt and Mearsheimer have also put their finger on the limits of acceptable discourse in the US. It is notable that none of the candidates standing for president in 2008 have a word of criticism for Israeli state behaviour; this week Barack Obama pulled an advert for his campaign from the Amazon page selling The Israel Lobby, denouncing the book as “just wrong”.

So what happened to America’s commitment to free speech, the First Amendment? “We knew from De Tocqueville this country is driven by conformity,” Judt says. “The law can’t make people speak out – it can only prevent people from stopping free speech. What’s happened is not censorship, but self-censorship.” Judt believes that a few well-organised groups including Aipac have succeeded in proscribing debate. He recalls a prominent Democratic senator confiding to him that he would never criticise Israel in public. “He told me that if he did so, for the rest of his career he would never be able to get a majority for what he cared about. He would be cut off at the knees.”

In the final chapter of the book, Walt and Mearsheimer make a shopping list of reforms. They call for: a two-state solution to the Middle East crisis; greater separation of US foreign policy from Israel for both nations’ sake; and campaign finance reform to reduce the power of pro-Israeli groups.

Nothing outlandish, or even controversial, there. Coming at the end of such a bumpy ride of claim and counter-claim, the conclusion feels almost disappointingly gentle. That in itself bears eloquent witness to the state of affairs in America today, where thoughts considered unremarkable elsewhere are deemed beyond the pale.