Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Unintended Casualties of War

One of the cheapest things to do in New York city as a tourist, is to take the Staten Island Ferry and watch the Liberty Statue pass by in close proximity. There are no excruciating security lines to pass through, and best of all, the ride is absolutely free. This is certainly one of my favorite rides to take with visitors as the vistas on a clear night are breathtaking. As the orange ferry pulls away from lower Manhattan, the view of the densely populated glass skinned monoliths that make up the skyline of lower Manhattan is spectacular by night. Cutting through the jungle and touching the clouds is the imposing new world trade center building, built on the very footing where the old twin towers once stood.

On one of my recent trips, as the ferry pulled away and the buildings began to shrink, I could not help remember in flashes that day when the towers fell. I was just across the river and the enormity of the  situation jolted me in spurts as the day progressed. What struck me on this night a decade later, was the enormity of the hatred and animosity one had to harbor to plan and execute such a horrific act. And what I realized was that the new world trade center stands tall as a symbol of America's resilience and wealth, but the killing that started on that ill-fated day has not stopped and shows no sign of relenting. The hatred harbored against this nation does not seem to stem and that has become a source of constant vigil causing this nation to turn inward and spend billions of dollars on security. As a result new wars get started in far off places, even as wounds from the old ones are no where close to healing. While Manhattan has rebuilt itself, Iraq and Afghanistan are still tearing apart with no sign of reconciliation and rebuilding. Guantanamo Bay still remains open causing those who hate America to hate even more. Thirteen years on, the war of minds and the clash of cultures continues taking unintended innocent victims in its wrath.

The war with American in some parts of the world had started even before the towers fell, but September 11th, 2001, everyone agrees was the day it spilled over, marking a decisive turning point whose casualties are still piling up at a steady pace.

One of the most recent victims of the long war was James Foley, who entered the public's consciousness via youtube when his gruesome murder was posted online for all to see. A freelance war correspondent, James Foley made a living going into war zones with a camera and bringing to the world in images what most people read in words. Some of his work can be seen in the new documentary film titled E-Team. While covering the carnage in Libya he was captured for forty four days and then released. That did not deter him from entering the next war zone that emerged in Syria. On November 22, 2012 on his way out of Syria, a few miles from the Turkish border, James Foley was taken from his taxi at gun point by a band of thugs. At this point the militant group known as ISIS had not come into existence. James Foley like many of his other colleagues from other parts of the western world, was kidnapped as a bargaining chip for ransom. An array of militant groups embroiled in the chaotic Syrian civil war, routinely have used western hostages for income.

When ISIS did come into existence this year, and the United States decided to bomb them to "dismantle and degrade" their barbaric advance, American journalists in captivity quickly became even more valuable assets. US policy against terrorist groups is simple and direct. Under no circumstances do they negotiate and this the State Department claims deters terrorists from taking Americans hostage as they cease to be lucrative, and thus saves lives. While European governments doled out millions of Euros to bring their citizens home, British and American citizens had no recourse. After almost two years in captivity James Foley was hauled out and beheaded in response to America's bombing raids against ISIS.

In a chilling, detailed and well researched report this week, Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times, revealed the harrowing months, days and moments James Foley and his colleagues spent in captivity. Three of James' compatriots were also murdered in cold blood after his execution and three others still remain captive. What we learn from the New York Time article is that James Foley was physically tortured in captivity. And one of the chosen methods of torture was the one widely used by the American military known as "waterboarding". Where the sensation of drowning is simulated by pouring water on ones face which is covered by a cloth blocking all breathing passages. We also see in his murder video, that James is wearing an orange jump suit, much like the ones the detainees at Guantanamo Bay are forced to wear.

The dirty illegal wars that were waged soon after the attacks on the twin towers, took America into some deep and dark corners from which to recover could take generations. When torture became endemic, a democratic nation formed on sacrosanct principles of human dignity, crossed a line it could not return from. The illegal CIA renditions, the torture apparatuses ingrained within prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, scarred the very character of a nation which had signed on to the Geneva Conventions as a matter of pride. When it was revealed in Senate hearings that America had in fact sanctioned torture at the highest levels by using a despicable term called "Enhanced Interrogations", not a single person in charge was held to account and there is little hope anyone ever will. America prides in its system of justice, and has chosen to not sign onto the International Criminal Court, stating that it can prosecute its own criminals. In this case its institutions have failed miserably, and this is not the first time. And as long as people remain incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, without a trail or any hope of getting one, America's institutions stand compromised and it's dirty association with torture sees no end. And the ones who pay a price for its failures are its innocent citizens, and James Foley and his friends were some of the unintended casualties.

When a nation or an individual engages in torture of another human being, he risks putting all those he represents in danger of meeting that same fate. The Geneva Conventions and other human rights laws were established to suppress the madness wars trigger in human beings. But it is not just wars that dehumanize, nations engage in torture through their own systems of oppression. While America cringes at the sight of ISIS beheading one of its own, it has no problem doing business with Saudi Arabia that beheads people routinely for crimes like sorcery and drug smuggling. In a controversial human rights case, Iran hung 26 year old Reyhneh Jabbari for stabbing her would be rapist this month. China which gives us everything cheap, regards the life of its citizens even cheaper, torturing and executing more than any on earth. China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq followed by the US lead the world in the business of capital punishment.

There is no question  there are threats that need to be confronted head on, to create a better world. The genocidal group ISIS is just one of many. One must also recognize that it is the bloody sectarian policies of Nouri Al-Malaki's regime that gave ISIS its wings, as shown in the remarkable Frontline documentary "The Rise of ISIS". The unspeakable Shia-Sunni bloodletting in the middle east is not just a result of bad American strategy, but also centuries of deep ingrained mistrust and hatred of each other. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is another threat, where America's intervention is commendable in the service of humanity. 

It is clear though, that one cannot bomb ones way out of real existential Geo-political problems, the costs are unsustainable. War with consistency, raises the specter of drawing people into committing savage and heinous acts that question the very essence of being human, no matter what religion one belongs to. What James Foley's tragic life teaches us, is that torture chambers in the deep recesses of a war zone are no different than those operated in developed peaceful nations. Inhumanity is everywhere. The path one chooses when faced with inhumanity, is what makes us humane and "civilized". It is what it is.