Where in the world is the captured American ISIS fighter?

There’s more than one American fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and if they should be killed on the battlefield, that is the risk they took in attaching themselves to a despicable cause. But, one has recently been captured alive. Besides a brief acknowledgment that he’s now in American custody, and the confirmation of his status by the Red Cross after they were able to visit him last week, there has been not a word further about who he is, where he is, or what the government plans to do with him. The measure of our nation and the strength of the ideals which we purport to hold will be proven by our treatment of this captive.

It is all too easy to dismiss our adversaries as inhuman beasts, and thereby discard the idea that they deserve any protection at all. However, as Robert H. Jackson remarked when preparing to judge the most notorious criminals the world had ever seen at Nuremburg – “even in victory and when stung by injury,” that we may “stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit [our] captive enemies to the judgement of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has paid to Reason.” The law which protects even the least among us best protects all of us.

This is not always an easy principle to remember. During the height of the bitter Algerian war, Jean-Paul Sartre reflected on the dark days of the German occupation of France. While the Gestapo were working their tortuous methods “in the Rue Lauriston,” he wrote, “Frenchmen were screaming in agony and pain: all France could hear them.” He remembered in disbelief that in those days the whole of the free world was united in outrage with sympathy for the victims, and that while “the outcome of the war was uncertain and the future unthinkable … one thing seemed impossible in any circumstances: that one day men should be made to scream by those acting in our name.” Nonetheless, France debased itself to the methods of its former abuse by torturing Algerians and other opponents of their colonial system.

Sartre had thought that such an inversion was impossible. But, in confronting its reality, he concluded that the pillars of humanism and law which he had hoped sheltered liberal democracy had no strength in themselves except that which was lent by the people who were willing to defend them. It was not only Algerian rebels who were victimized, but bystanders as well and even metropolitan French men and women who fell astray of violence which had slipped free of the restraint of law, and could no longer distinguish friend from enemy or justice from injustice.

The point is that torture, indefinite detention, and the lawlessness which they entail are not targeted weapons. They are arbitrary exercises of power of the sort which James Madison warned “poisons the blessings of liberty itself.” Our nation has become great and continues to grow because of our resolution not to be ruled, but rather to rule ourselves through public law that depends not on the whims of any individual. It’s an aspirational and unfinished ideal, but in contrast to that which would carve out endless exceptions in the name of necessity, the security which rigorous respect for the rule of law brings cannot be matched. The danger of tolerating injustice is that any method which might now be levied against one’s enemies will in time be turned against you. As Sartre concluded, when arbitrariness rules, “anybody, at any time, may equally find themselves victim or executioner.”

This is not an abstract lesson, or a point made for the sake of philosophy alone. When the American people were asked to support war half-way around the globe against Afghanistan and later Iraq, we were promised that our nation was fighting to defend freedom and democracy against the tyrannies of fundamentalism and dictatorship. Speaking before Congress nine days after the September 11th attacks, President George Bush lamented that “Afghanistan’s people have been brutalized, many are starving and many have fled. Women are not allowed to attend school. You can be jailed for owning a television. Religion can be practiced only as their leaders dictate. A man can be jailed in Afghanistan if his beard is not long enough.” He promised that our war would be one waged against terror.

Yet, to fight it we deployed terror of our own. At Guantanamo Bay and around the world, the American government drowned people and then revived them so as to be able to drown them again. As ever, this horror began with the conceit that it would be visited upon only the most deserving. But, as always occurs when the impulse of vengeance is loosed from the restraint of law, most victims were innocent. Of the 779 people detained at Guantanamo, only 5% were captured by American soldiers. The rest were handed over by local forces or civilians, many of them for no reason other than the bounties which were offered. Lawerence B. Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, acknowledged as much, saying that “it did not matter if a detainee were innocent. Indeed, because he lived in Afghanistan and was captured on or near the battle area, he must know something of importance.” Many of these innocents, he said, “clearly had no connection to al-Qaida and the Taliban and were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Even knowing this, we tortured regardless. Our failure arose from our fear, and we bowed to the promise that brutality could defeat brutality and that in our hands horror could vanquish terror.

This has not occurred. Terrorism continues to plague the world, and likely will for decades if not centuries to come. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq grind on with no clear end in sight. The United States was not improved one bit by our retreat from the iron bedrock of principle. It is only because of the stalwart work of the lawyers and advocates who demanded that the law must treat all-comers equally, especially in the most trying circumstances, that our nation was not more badly degraded.

So that it may never happen again, the government must immediately clarify the status and identity of their American captive. They must afford him the rights that he is guaranteed by the Constitution so as to reassure all Americans of their strength. National security cannot be an excuse for failure in this regard, because bringing him home to face trial in a civilian court is an affirmation of our national security. What else are we fighting for, if not for the preservation of the rule of law and the Constitution against the sort of millenarial revanchism which would replace both with rule by force and arbitrariness alone?

 

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Nothing new about racists struggling with reality

The proliferation of mail-in genetic testing services has brought genealogy to the masses, but discontent to racists. While proving one’s own pedigree might seem an essential step to take before crowing about the superiority of one race over another, testing has instead proven that the reality of human variation rarely fits racist aspirations. Nevertheless, following a study of thousands of posts on the neo-Nazi message board Stormfront, researchers Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan found that rather than retreating from their ideology of racial difference, posters who were confronted with testing results that proved the heterogeneity of the human genome would instead seek rationalizations online in order to affirm their assumed racial superiority. In turn, instead of rejecting members who did not fit their profile of racial purity, the other users sought to supply explanations and criticisms of genetic testing so as to massage away any dissonance which the results produced.

That they would do so defies the internal logic of their racism, but is also entirely unsurprising. Racism, by its nature, is an exercise in absurdity. Cribbing from Claude Levi-Strauss, Edward Said once summarized the human bias towards tribalism as being founded upon our most rudimentary system of classifying the world, in which the distinctions we draw between things are neither “predictably rational nor universal.” Consequently, the degree to which someone identifies with a particular group is often based on “a very unrigorous idea of what is ‘out there,’ beyond one’s own territory.” Racism is therefore an entirely negative construction. It depends not on what the racist thinks they are, but rather upon what they believe they are not.

Though they may argue otherwise, the evidence is in the fact that they are forever more able to articulate their hatred towards others than their pride in themselves. When pressed, the modern white racist can rarely do better than making vague allusions to “Western culture” when asked to justify their sense of superiority. It’s as true today as it was in the past, as when Gerhard Fricke of Göttingen declared that celebrating the ascension of Nazism in Germany meant standing against “democracy, liberalism, individualism and humanism, capitalism and communism.” Even in the wake of the Nazi revolution, he could not express his identity as a supposedly Aryan German as anything but the anti-thesis of what he reviled.

It is exactly that inability to precisely define race which doomed Nazism to failure, just as it similarly dooms any modern movement which harbors the same hatreds. Regardless of their defeat on the battlefield, the Nazis had already defined victory around an impossible task. Their ambition of building an ethno-state of pure Aryan Germans faltered from the start as contradictions and compromises accumulated behind an ideology which thought itself pure.

The fundamental characteristic of any racism is belief in an intrinsic, immutable superiority defined by heritage, and it was expressed by Nazism through the vocabulary of “blood and soil.” Their idea of Aryan ‘Germanness’ held that the German people were mystically bound to the land which they occupied. Blood and soil, land and people, each a facet of the other, lending strength to the other. Together those two ideas were the ethos which drove Nazism above all others, and they were premised upon the belief that Germans were a part of a uniquely worthy race which was nonetheless under threat of extinction, and that seizing the land of other inferior races was the only means by which Germans could struggle to protect the sanctity of their own people. As the historian Timothy Snyder summarizes it, Hitler’s view was that “ecology was scarcity, and existence meant a struggle for land.” Races could either triumph by dominating new frontiers, or else starve and be extinguished. When he ordered his soldiers eastward against Poland, Hitler’s primary war goal was therefore the realization of a new living space where land would be cultivated to incubate new generations of German soldiers and mothers. In his vision there was room for neither a Polish state nor a Polish people. Well before the war began, he declared that Germany was not to approach the Poles “with the intention of wanting to one day make Germans out of them.” Instead, the only course was to “either to seal off these racially foreign elements, so as not to let the blood of our people once again be polluted, or … remove them and hand the liberated soil to [our] own racial comrades.”

The absurdity of his vision is that even a cursory examination exposes the foundational tenets of Nazism — ‘Aryan,’ ‘German,’ and even ‘blood’ — as ill-defined and contradictory. Leaving aside even the expansionary facet of Nazism’s racism and the eventual defeat which it earned, even a purely internal purifying effort was doomed to fail. As Alon Confino writes, “there were two kinds of science in the Third Reich, connected but not identical.” There was that with which we are familiar, where experiments and hypotheses are created and tested in the spirit of honest inquiry, and then there was the other sort which “sought to prove Nazi racial ideas, conforming to its ideological imperatives. Racial experts read into the ‘evidence’ what they had already determined before their research had begun.” Consequently, the boundaries of race were defined more often as markers of spiritual belief, or as “a community of intellect,” than by any evidentiary basis. Even by their own standards, the Nazis could not create a racially pure society because by their own standards they did not know what that was. Riddled as it was with irreconcilable contradictions, Nazi racial ideology remains nonsensical if treated as anything but an article of faith.

Take the Nuremberg race laws as an example. They were Nazism’s most visible attempt to express their dogma, and they were supposed to be the basis from which impure blood could be identified and expunged. The basic demarcation was that anyone who had three of four Jewish grandparents was considered a Jew. Already there is a problem, because if Nazism were actually holding true to the belief that the taint of Jewish ancestry was insurmountable, even one Jewish grandparent meant the continuation of Jewish blood, posing a risk to the people’s community. Furthermore, actual implementation demanded exceptions for fringe cases which again undermined the premise upon which the enterprise was founded. For example, a child born before 1935 to a union between a Jew and a German was classified as Mischling [partly belonging to the German race] whereas a child born to the same union after 1935 was considered fully Jewish. Such a contradiction is an inherent consequence of trying to translate an ideology with a basically false premise (that Jews were readily definable and separable from German society) to practical application.

After all, why should a convert to Judaism be marked for death when the German wife of a Jewish man was not? In the language of blood, as the Nazis used it, both would be equally fouled. But, because of the inherent contradictions in Nazi ideology, they were treated differently. Doris Bergen writes of another example originating in Poland, where bureaucrats were tasked with the “Germanization” of the newly acquired territories. “They realized that even a massively increased birthrate could not produce enough children to achieve the rate of population growth they wanted. As a result they proposed taking ‘racially valuable’ children away from supposedly inferior parents in order to ‘Germanize’ them.” However, if the value of race is tied to blood there would be little sense in hoping the child of an inferior soul could produce a superior one. Such a program of integration is comprehensible only in the case that the value of an individual is in some way separate from their blood. The absurdity of Nazi racial ideology was that they, in separate arenas and at the same time, argued for both.

A particular example can be found in the case of two Polish women named Johanna and Danuta W. Their parents were “pure Polish,” but the sisters nevertheless applied for Germanization. As Doris Bergen relates, “in 1944 SS racial authorities in one city approved Johanna’s application and she became officially recognized as an ethnic German. A similar office elsewhere rejected Danuta. Meanwhile both women went to Germany to work as housemaids.” While there Danuta became pregnant by an SS man and when her “baby was born he received ethnic German status, but his mother was still classified as a Pole.” The reason given for this byzantine demarcation: Danuta “did not look so good.”

Yet another similar story is retold by Alon Confino. In a bizarre twist of fate, the ghettoization of German Jews markedly increased the status of Jewish archivists. Because ‘Germanness’ and ‘Aryan’ were never defined by anything other than what they weren’t, anyone seeking to prove Aryan ancestry would have to prove first that they weren’t Jewish. One SS man by the name of Kuh set out to prove his pedigree through consultation with the local archivist Rabbi Brilling in Breslau, but encountered the problem that his great-grandmother had converted to Christianity from Judaism in 1802. The cutoff date for such a conversion to be acceptable was 1800. Kuh, “considering his exciting future career and in appreciation of the good work of the archivist, asked Brilling to change the date [of conversion] to 1798.” So doing, he mystically changed his soul, his blood, his very essence from being unacceptable to acceptable. The difference two years makes.

Reporting of Aaron Panofsky and Joan Davidson’s study led with the story of Craig Cobb, a white supremacist whose genetic identity was revealed to include sub-Saharan markers on live television, as if it were a revelation that racists might also be hypocrites. In fact, hypocrisy is baked into their very being. Because of our common ancestry, hypocrisy is inherent to any enterprise which seeks to define the value of an individual by their birth. While the danger racists pose may never fade, neither will their absurdity.

Why did Boeing’s CEO prostrate himself to Trump?

In his silence following Charlottesville, Dennis Muilenberg chose servile abstinence over the ethical commitment to fostering a free and equal society which Boeing claims to uphold. By remaining on President Trump’s council for American manufacturing despite the principled example of the business executives who had already resigned, Mr. Muilenberg signaled a greater interest in preserving the company’s profit margins than in defending Boeing’s professed commitment to diversity and inclusiveness.

There may have been a time, many months ago, when a blindingly practical person could have thought that supporting President Trump on the technical issues of the American economy was separable from his broader political agenda and the odious aspects thereof. But, any such distinction lost meaning when, in the wake of murderous hate in Charlottesville, the President could only bring himself to equivocate in an effort to diminish the sharp moral difference between the counter-protestors and the Nazis whom they opposed.

A President who cannot denounce racial hatred without qualification does not have the capacity to be a serious partner in any endeavor. What did Mr. Muilenberg expect to accomplish on the council beyond lending his name and the stature of Boeing, along with all the legitimacy that brings, to a President who would otherwise lack it entirely? By all accounts the council has never even met, has never had a concrete agenda, and has never advanced any policy proposals. So what was it that Mr. Muilenberg felt he had to lose if he were to leave? Did the mere threat of a critical tweet loom so large that he chose to stand by a President who will not even tweet criticism of the Ku Klux Klan and their racial ideology?

Even now, after President Trump’s subsequent tirade, which Charles Krauthammer described as making the more moderate statement from Monday look like a “hostage tape,” Mr. Muilenberg remains silent. Even after the further defections of other more courageous executives led to the complete collapse of the council upon which he served, Mr. Muilenberg cannot muster a word of criticism. No doubt his ploy is to remain unnoticed so as to not risk offending. But, who is it that he fears might be offended? The marchers who chanted “blood and soil,” “Jews will not replace us,” and other contemptible slogans while lit by torchlight? Does he not realize that his silence is an offense in its own right? That, as Elie Wiesel remarked, its continuance will only ever serve the tormenter and not the tormented?

The time for abstention is over. As President Kennedy said, cribbing from Dante, “the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.” Though it is an uncomfortable duty to speak, it is nonetheless his and he must take it up.

Political correctness begets social reciprocity

It’s a sure sign of the weakness of any ideology when its partisans’ best hope for defining themselves is to rail against all those things which they think they are not. As the last refuge of the insecure, building strawmen to burn at least allows someone the pretense of a worldview without the usual difficulty of enduring critical thought. As ever, it’s easier to lob bombs than to build. It’s no surprise then that the ill-defined and conveniently flexible concept of “political correctness” continues as the target of choice for any right-wing commentator who wishes to signal their political virtue by taking aim at fantasies.

To hear them tell it, by its existence alone political correctness has kept terrorists in business, the economy sluggish, crime rates high, and is further responsible for any other ills you may wish to lay at its feet. It is, in its omnipresence, the ‘but-for’ causality of every bad outcome. This last Sunday on Fox and Friends,  fault was again found in the idea of political correctness, apparently because it restrains us from herding people into camps according to their religion or torturing anyone we judge suspicious (or brown) enough.

That Nigel Farage and James Mitchell (and their hosts who failed to challenge them) think that it is merely an aversion to voicing controversial ideas which restrains right-minded people from torturing or arbitrarily imprisoning others exposes the rot in their minds. Their version of political correctness has nothing to do with Overton windows or reclaiming ground for debate. They reject it not out of principle, but because they don’t particularly care for anything beyond triumphing over opposition. Struggle for its own sake. Winning for its own sake.

James Mitchell is, after all, a torturer, and that is a profession open only to those who can cherish action alone, who can think that the good is in doing, not in what is done. What he values is so much less important to him than what he opposes, and in that vein his version of political correctness is a forever accessible slate upon which he can project his latest oppositional ambition. One day if he wishes to feel particularly manly he might decry political correctness as the spawn of effete modernity, and so doing he will construct his own masculinity. Or, as he did last Sunday, he might criticise political correctness as the tool of cowards who are too weak to make real decisions, and thereby attempt to justify the enormity of his own choices. This spectral version of political correctness is therefore the vehicle de rigueur through which lackeys like James Mitchell can claim virtues which they never possessed by declaring themselves enemies to villains which never existed.

It’s tribalism in its basest form, and it’s nothing particularly new. As Edward Said described the phenomenon, “often the sense in which someone feels himself to be not-foreign is based on a very unrigorous idea of what is ‘out there,’ beyond one’s own territory.” Sometimes if you don’t know who you are yourself, it might seem sufficient to know who you are not. And, to the benefit of Nigel Farage and James Mitchell, the idea that your opposition exists only on an ethical plane entirely separate from your own makes the contemplation of atrocities such as internment and torture trivial rather than momentous.

The ideology on display last Sunday was that of us and them, such that us is valuable precisely and only because us is not them. How easy it therefore is to pretend to serious concern and solemnly intone that “the calls for internment will grow,” as if those calls arise passively from the aether. And, how much easier it is to denounce the still faceless interloper political correctness so that one’s own ambition — torture — need not be defended.

That small minded mentality, however, is amazingly short sighted. Though they seek to ingratiate their complaint against political correctness into the mainstream by presenting it as a criticism of liberal frivolity, their actual intent strikes much deeper. They do not seek dialogue so much as license. They do not seek debate, but rather they hope to simply end it in their favor.

Their complaint is not about political correctness at all, at least not in the sense that most would understand the term. When they complain that it is merely political correctness which has left our societies vulnerable to attack, they are taking aim at the traditions which guard against the bestial impulses of frightened people. For a given value of security a closed society will always be safer than an open one, so long as you are willing to cast aside the freedom to live, think and feel without the consent of domineering authority.

Nigel Farage and James Mitchell’s real complaint is not with overzealous college students who rile themselves up whenever provocateurs come through on the lecture circuit. In nodding towards internment, and in accepting torture, those two stand squarely against the hard won ideals which hold that all humans are created equal, and that all humans share an inherent dignity which can never be rightly transgressed. In opposition to that ideal, they seem to accept strength alone as an absolute good, and so doing they cast aside the foundational democratic philosophy which allows the world to be seen as more than a competition for scant resources and space. They forget the value of political reciprocity, and the rule of law.

And, James Mitchell, who made his money inventing new ways to make people scream, forgets that it is those ideals which shelter him from a world where he might die as he lived.

Russia shot down a passenger jet

On 17 July 2014 a missile struck the regularly scheduled Malaysian Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur causing it to crash. All 298 passengers and crew perished. There were no survivors. The missile which destroyed the plane was launched from a Russian BuK air-defense system positioned somewhere near the village Snizhne in rebel controlled Ukraine. The crew which served the BuK were at least trained by Russians, and possibly Russian themselves. The rebels who held the territory that the missile was fired from were led by Russian intelligence officers. When they were hard pressed they were aided by regular Russian army units that crossed the border to reinforce them. And, after it completed its deadly work, the carriage upon which the missile was conveyed returned to Russia.

The entire effort leading up to and following the destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight Mh17 was orchestrated by Russia as part of their continuing policy of aggression towards their neighbors. For years the Russian government has been operating by the principle that the strong deserve to dominate the weak, and that strength is best expressed through the application of violence. Upon these principles they set out to annex the Crimea and sow war in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Mh17 was not an intentional target, but its destruction and the murder of all those on-board was the natural consequence of a duplicitous foreign policy that seeks national advantage no matter the cost to others.

That day when they destroyed the Malaysian Airlines flight, Russia’s rebel proxies actually found cause to celebrate. They had only just received their advanced new weapon from across the border, and they were excited to put it to use. Without much indigenous support or an air force of their own, the Russian-backed militias in the Donbass had been increasingly hard-pressed trying to hold the territory that they had staked out as Novorossiyan. However, the addition of new anti-aircraft missile systems to their arsenal promised to even the odds. They had even succeeded in downing a Ukrainian military transport plane just prior to their destruction of the civilian airliner.

As such they thought that they’d struck proverbial gold. In the days just before they shot down the Mh17 flight a rebel affiliated social media account posted photos of the BuK as a sort of warning to their Ukrainian opponents. Soon after it was targeted, Igor Girkin neé Strelkov — a local commander and agent of the Russian intelligence services — attached videos of smoke billowing from the crash site to a triumphant post on social media so as to claim victory over what he thought was an An-26 transport plane like the one that they had previously destroyed. He wrote “we warned them not to fly through our airspace.” Hours later he deleted the post.

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The first video from the crash site itself shows rebels arriving with the expectation that they would find military wreckage. Behind the camera someone is on the phone with his commander to confirm that he’s reached the site but, confused by what he sees, he asks if there isn’t another plane. He states that it’s a civilian passenger plane that he’s seeing and the call ends. Off camera other rebels question whether this could be a plane other than the one they shot down. At first they rationalize that it’s a fighter, a Sukhoi as the Su-series fighters are called, but as their confusion deepens they wonder aloud whether there must have been multiple planes shot down. Once it becomes clear that there was only the one, and that it was a civilian passenger jet, they begin searching through luggage, hiding identifying features, and attempting to locate the black box, all as a part of an effort to cover up their crime.

Despite claiming that they had nothing to hide, the rebels then made every effort to hide the site from public scrutiny. In the days after the crash the international investigators that arrived to conduct autopsies and examine the wreckage were blocked by tens of heavily armed and masked rebels. After a tense standoff they were driven away by the apparent rebel commander as he fired warning shots around them. Even when investigators managed to gain nominal freedom to come and go as they needed they were often hindered by periodic fighting or by simple refusal to allow them to pass checkpoints.

Though the black box flight recorder was found at most three days after the plane went down, it was not handed over to Malaysian authorities until two days after that. In the interim, the Ukrainian intelligence services were conducting an investigation of their own. Beginning the day of the crash, they intercepted a number of phone calls between rebel commanders and their subordinates, the dialogue of which betrays the high level of coordination between the rebels on the ground and their controllers in Moscow.

The first is a conversation between the former Soviet soldier Igor Bezler and his Russian handler Colonel Vasyl Mykolaiovych Geranin. Calling just thirty minutes after the crash, Bezler informs Colonel Geranin that Igor Strelkov’s group had shot down a plane. Still under the impression that it was a military flight, he is directed to find the pilots. At about the same time two other rebels identified only by their nicknames discuss what’s just happened, and one relates his conclusion that “we are completely sure that it was a civilian plane.” The other wants to know if there were any weapons found. No, is the response. Any identifying documents? Yes, but only those of civilians.

An hour later, a different militant makes contact with Nikolai Ivanovich Kozitsyn — an ataman of the Russian Don Cossacks and a commander among the rebel forces. Kozitsyn is told that it was a civilian plane that was destroyed, that “there are a whole lot of bodies of women and children,” and that his Cossacks are conducting further searches. The man who called him then recalls that Russian television was reporting that it was a Ukrainian An-26 transport plane like Igor Strelkov had supposed, but that Malaysian Airlines was clearly written on the fuselage. Kozitsyn’s response is that the shootdown was nonetheless justified, because “they were bringing spies” and he wonders rhetorically “why the hell were they flying? There is a war going on.”

The next days that followed were then suffused by a certain urgency on the rebels’ part to control as much evidence as possible so as to dictate the narrative about what occurred. Because it was impossible for them to claim that the Mh17 flight was a legitimate target, their hope lay in disguising their responsibility by obfuscating the situation through lies and misdirection. It was to this end that Alexander Khodakovsky, an associate of Igor Strelkov, was on the phone on 18 July.

In conversations recorded by the Ukrainian Security Service, he discusses the need to secure the crash site and the evidence therein with a number of other rebels. He specifically asks after “the black boxes,” and insists that they be found urgently because “Moscow asks where the boxes are.” In a second call he then emphasizes that “our friends from high above are very much interested in the fate of the ‘black boxes,’” and clarifies that he means “people from Moscow.” Speed is needed, he warns, so that they don’t fall into someone else’s hands since “all those people that are coming, [the investigators from] the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and so on.” Finally he calls the first number back and answers a question about what to do with something that’s been found: a “satellite navigation block” as it’s described. He answers “hide it anyways, who knows how they [the black boxes] are disguised.”

Despite this attempt at deception, Alexander Khodakovsky was not always so circumspect. Five days after he made the intercepted phone calls, he sat down to interview with Reuters and acknowledged that the rebel groups possessed a weapon of the same type that destroyed the airliner. In contradictory arguments he at once faulted Ukraine for the tragedy by saying that they knew the rebels had been reinforced with air defense systems and therefore provoked the destruction of the civilian airliner by continuing to bomb rebel positions regardless, while also claiming that the rebels’ BuK missile system had been far away in Luhansk on the day of the crash. However, because his admission that the rebels possessed a BuK contradicted the Kremlin party line that no such weapons were present in the Ukraine, Alexander Khodakovsky attempted to retract his statement and name Reuters as liars. Reuters then released an audio recording of the interview that confirmed the truth of their reporting.

Against the mounting evidence that it was their rebels who had destroyed the airplane, Russia’s response was to turn again towards the familiar practice of lying. Immediately after the destruction of Mh17, Vladimir Putin made a statement blaming Ukraine for the tragedy by saying that “without doubt the government of the territory on which it happened bears responsibility” — totally neglecting to mention that Ukraine did not control the territory because of the Russian backed insurgency. For months afterwards, and unto this day, the Kremlin has maintained that Ukraine was somehow responsible for destroying Mh17. When asked to provide evidence of their claims Russia has declined. They have instead chosen to present a cavalcade of fanciful alternative theories.

For years the Russian government has even been unwilling to concede that it was a surface launched missile which brought the plane down. In a press conference on 21 July, the head of the Main Operations Directorate of Russia’s military forces Lieutenant-General Andrey Kartopolov claimed that a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter was flying near Mh17 at the same time and at the same height. This claim was made despite the fact that the Su-25 has an operational ceiling of 7,000 meters when lightly loaded and Mh17 was flying at its cruising altitude of 10,000 meters.

Months later the Russian state even went to the trouble of staging a televised farce wherein a supposed witness to Ukrainian machinations appeared on camera with a disguised face and distorted voice to claim that he had seen a Su-25 take off from Aviatorske airport the day of the crash. This effort, disseminated through the state controlled Moscow media, followed an earlier, even more ridiculous production when Channel One broadcast poorly photoshopped satellite photos of a fighter jet closing to within hundreds of meters of the Mh17 flight in order to engage it with cannons. The images were intended to support Russia’s claim that the plane had been destroyed from the air.

Perhaps recognizing that the absurdity of this first claim could not be sustained, Lieutenant-General Kartopolov also presented satellite photos which supposedly showed Ukrainian BuKs in a position from which they could have fired upon the flight. This was done in order to insinuate that it was in fact the Ukrainian state which had targeted a civilian plane in their own attempt to discredit their rebel opponents.

However, the supplied satellite evidence was a complete fabrication, as was the radar evidence which accompanied it. The Bellingcat team of investigative journalists conducted an independent forensic examination of the supplied images, and after they commissioned satellite time of their own they were able to prove that Russia’s images were not taken on the claimed dates and were also otherwise digitally altered. Discrepancies include parked vehicles inexplicably changing position, as well as major differences in local geography and vegetation to the point that the Russian Ministry of Defence’s imagery can be confirmed to have been taken before July 2nd — weeks before Mh17 was destroyed.

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That the Russian state would attempt such a blatant deception is unfortunately unsurprising. Obstinate refusal to deal with the world truthfully is their foreign policy. Always some other explanation, always someone else to blame. In Crimea, for example, the Russian annexation was preceded by the sudden appearance of hundreds of armed soldiers in green uniforms without insignia. They arrived by helicopter and with heavy weapons including armored personnel carriers, and they immediately moved to seize the regional parliament building as well as airports in the vicinity of Simferopol. They were also curiously mute, and they resisted speaking with any media.

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The mysterious “little green men,” pictured without insignia. More reporting from Simon Ostrovsky, the BBC, and Steven Pifer with The Brookings Institute.

Given their equipment and coordinated action as well as their apparent objectives, it was clear from the beginning that these soldiers were Russian. Nonetheless Russia denied any knowledge or connection to them, instead choosing to characterize them as local patriots who rose up of their own accord while miraculously armed to the teeth. At a press conference in Madrid on 5 March 2014, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that “these are self-defense forces, which were created by the population of Crimea, we do not give them any orders, they receive no orders from us.” Variations of that sentiment were repeated for months as Russia continued to deny against all evidence that they had had anything to do with the Crimea’s annexation. Then, a year later Vladimir Putin abruptly admitted that the so-called “little green men” had “of course” been “our servicemen.”

It’s also quite typical that the Russian organs of state were making contradictory claims simultaneously as Lieutenant-General Kartopolov did when he said that he had evidence that the Mh17 flight was destroyed by a Ukrainian jet but also a Ukrainian surface to air missile. Their preferred method of argumentation is in the gish-gallop style. There is no regard for the truth of the matter (since truth was never the objective) nor even for consistency or plausibility (because convincing someone is a happy accident rather than a goal). Rather, the aim is to simply flood out genuine interest with a wave of confusing claims, and to make so many so quickly that refutations can never keep up or be heard above the din.

The goal of these trolls is not to elevate the Russian narrative to the level of legitimate discussion. To do so in an impossibility. Rather, they intend to sow confusion so as to erode trust in the very notion of truth itself. Dissension, division, doubt. Those are their goals, and their tools are coordinated mass media campaigns, the only purpose of which is to cheapen public discourse and faith in institutions by brazenly repeating pernicious lies.

In St. Petersburg, Russia, there is a cold faced concrete building where this worked is carried out. Known as ‘The Agency,’ it is a workplace of sorts, but what it produces is purely ethereal. Hundreds of employees sit down every day to flood social media and search engines with pre-planned propaganda. One day it is invented stories about fascist coups in Kiev, the next brings lies about fake terror attacks in the United States, or stories intended to stoke racial and political tension. Although one story may be contradicted by the next, it doesn’t matter so long as the contradictions serve to stoke fear and distrust. Because the Russian state operates according by the capricious rules of deceit, and because they are unwilling to engage faithfully with the international community, they must employ these underhanded tactics. Their goal, again, is not to disguise their own faults. Instead they serve the pretense that everyone else is just as bad.

If but the world could live in peace, with no greed nor hunger; a brotherhood of man with nothing to kill or die for, then we would have no need for governments or the politicians that populate them. If we could all just get along, then it would be so easy to come together and agree about the shape of the world and what its future should be. Of course peace is the outcome that anyone with an interest in justice and human rights should hope for. No one can be blamed for that ambition. However, whatever utopian hopes we might harbor, they must always be tempered by the reality of the world. As has been the case since time immemorial, bad actors abound, and they conduct their business with ill-intent and through duplicitous means. The government of Russia, and Vladimir Putin specifically, will never be peaceful partners until they themselves embrace the concept of peace.

President Donald Trump does not want to admit as much. He speaks disinterestedly about his relationship with Russia and Putin as if it were a trifling thing, and he bats away questions about their conduct as unworthy. Despite bragging in the past that he had a great relationship with Vladimir Putin, and despite populating his campaign and government with similarly associated figures like Carter Page, Michael Flynn, and Paul Manafort, he and his representatives have lied that they have no connection whatsoever to Russia or its government.

They’re also lying to themselves about, or at least are ambivalent to, the danger that Russia’s behavior poses. Their disregard for the Ukraine and the Baltic states only invites further Russian aggression. The excuse they offer; that it’s not the United States’ business to care, reads like a transcript from prior centuries when European powers were carving the world into spheres of influence. The thought was that there would be room enough for all the so-called great powers to exercise their might without intruding upon the others. It was false then as it is now. Their arrogance supposed that by inherent right some nations should dominate others, and that aggressive war was a legitimate tool of diplomacy.

Ultimately, because the European powers accepted war as just another transaction between states, their international system was doomed to end in calamity. By tolerating the principle of conquest in some places in hope of detente in others, the Europe neglected the difficult process of building the sort of robust international system that can sustain negotiated settlements. Instead, they favored one that operated on expediency. The tacit agreements and secret alliances that were made to secure temporary power in an ever shifting web of obligation fostered rivalries and distrust which collapsed into disaster on the battlefields of the First World War. Though Gavirio Princip’s assassins were the match which sparked the flame, Europe was already a roiling cauldron of international discontent, and it was made that way by the fact that the powers of the time had gotten used to exercising violence to get their way.

Since the end of the Second World War, however, the world has at least expressed an ambition to be better. The first charge of indictment at Nuremburg was not crimes against humanity, but rather belligerence in war. Having witnessed the carnage that had thus far marked the 20th century, the countries of the world resolved to see an end to it. At least in rhetoric, if not always in action, the world has vowed that each nation shall have the right to decide their own destinies so long as they do not trespass against another.

There is no claim here that modern diplomacy is perfect by comparison to the past. As Donald Trump would no doubt be happy to point out, the United States has all too often acted as an imperfect advocate for justice, peace, and equality. The same can be said about any country in the world. It should come as no surprise that politicians might say one thing while doing another, especially if they think it’ll advance the national interest. To acknowledge our own deficiencies is not, however, a concession of the real differences between governments as defined by the intent, scale, and outcome of the actions they take.

The argument otherwise, that there are no differences, is just a frustrating repetition of the argumentative whataboutism that’s long been the Kremlin’s favored tool for obfuscating fault and spreading doubt. Has Russia done wrong? Who are you to say! You are not perfect yourself! Under the baleful gaze of whataboutism, criticism is a thing left only for saints. The whataboutist would have you solve all the world’s ills before permitting you to comment on them.

And it’s there that Donald Trump’s recent remarks are most troubling. If Putin is a killer, he says, then so are Americans. Unilateral moral disarmament in a single sentence. As Jake Sullivan writes in Foreignpolicy, “America isn’t perfect, but it is principled. We care about freedom and equality and decency. We (mostly) try to do the right thing — and when we don’t, Americans hold their country to account.” In other words, we aspire. Donald Trump though, which his happy acceptance of false equivalencies, would sooner let us fester. His attitude is indifference, and it is born somewhere between disbelief that anything we do really matters at all, and a cynical detachment from the struggles of daily life such that can only be possessed by the obscenely rich.

Though it might wound his ego to admit it, Donald Trump must recognize that our rivalry with Russia is not merely political. They have shown active disdain for even the principle of peace. They have lied without fear, because they don’t care if they’re believed. The kleptocratic regime which has taken over their state operates according to principles that are incompatible with the trust that is necessary for the negotiation that Donald Trump prides himself on. What, after all, is the point of concluding treaties and agreements which the other side feels no obligation to honor? Why will appeasement serve us now, when it has always failed in the past? Affability is not a virtue. Vigilance is.

Lock him up!

Adapted from Michael Flynn’s remarks at the RNC.

I’m here tonight as a determined American who loves our country, and my message to you is very clear: wake up America!

There is no substitute for American leadership and exceptionalism. America should not fear our enemies. In fact, we should clearly defined our enemies. Face them head on, and defeat those that seek to threaten our country and our way of life.

Tonight we stand together as proud patriots who deeply love our country and believe in the principles of freedom, democracy, liberty, and fidelity. This is about this country. This is about the future of our children.

We know that America, our nation, is the greatest country in the history of the world,  and that there can never be a substitute for America, and let us sustain the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in American history. American exceptionalism must never fade.

But now, it is up to us  and you cannot sit this administration out. I stand with you as a citizen and as a patriot, but most importantly, as an American. I stand to tell you that the destructive pattern of putting the interest of other nations ahead of our own will must come to an end.

From this day forward, we must stand tougher and stronger together with an unrelenting goal to seek the truth wherever it may lead, and to never be satisfied with reckless rhetoric from a Trump clone like Michael Flynn.

We must draw from a rich foundation of our founding father’s fight for democracy and lead our friends and allies with more determination than ever before, with conviction in our investigative agencies that pierces through the ideology of any people or any nation that attacks America, America’s way of life, and our proud heritage of honesty and courage.

Tonight, American stands as one; with strength and confidence to overcome the last month of the Trump administration failures. Bumbling indecisiveness, willful ignorance, and total incompetence have challenged the very heart and soul of every American and single-handedly fostered continued mayhem, murder, and destruction throughout the world and on our neighborhoods and streets.

On this day, we start the beginning of a new American century, a time that we turn our heads forward with persistent and relentless focus on protecting our communities, our families and our country by holding individuals accountable for their actions — equally and fairly.

Our new American century does not risk its future on mindless partisan loyalty and senseless tribalism. It is time to recognize our obligation to lead the world with unwavering integrity, renewed strength, and if Congress does its job, we will make America great again!

The Trump-Flynn duo has failed our country by defying America’s exceptionalism and betraying our nation’s history and our Founding Fathers’ revolution. A commander-in-chief does not allow foreign spies to peer into our nation’s secrets. America does not roll over for anyone. We are tired of Trump’s empty speeches and his ranting on Twitter. This has caused the world to have no respect for America’s word.

Let me be clear. Appeasement towards Russia is not a strategy for curbing their aggression as Trump and Flynn would like us to believe. Allowing them to hack our election and place agents within the West Wing will not end the attacks on this country. On the contrary, it simply emboldens the kleptocrats and prolongs their dominion.

Under Donald Trump we have no strategy to protect the country, and so long as Michael Flynn, Carter Page and Paul Manafort continue to influence him, it’ll be more of the same. I am infuriated when I say that our president does not recognize the invasion of the Crimea. I’m certain that we cannot stand strong in this struggle unless we are free to call  foreign meddling by its name: Russian aggression!

Because of Donald Trump’s ill-advised actions, the world has lost faith in American leadership while the threats are mounting. A complete lack of American readiness to face intrusions against our electoral system. Untold cyber threats. Demoralized allies around the world. Growing nuclear capability in China and North Korea, and loss of respect and confidence around the globe.

We have become the best enemies and the worst friends.

These next four years will be consumed by the perils that we now face. The Trump-Flynn list of failed policies goes on and on. We need a commander-in-chief who understands the challenges and is willing to meet them head on.

Our adversaries must never again mock American will power to challenge them, and we must never give them a reason to doubt our resolve to win.

The most damaging example of the President’s failure to understand the consequences of putting political expediency ahead of national security is the placement of a Russia stooge – Michael Flynn – on the National Security Council.

We cannot continue down this path. More lives are at stake. Our way of life is in jeopardy, our very existence is threatened. What keeps me up at night is the sobering realization that evil exists. The subversion of our democratic system by foreign powers should keep us all up at night.

We must take seriously the possibility that these enemies have place agents in the highest offices of our government, and intend to use them. That is a very serious issue. We must understand and define our enemies if we intend to defeat them. Americans deserve no less.

Because Trump chose to conceal the actions of foreign leaders like Vladimir Putin and groups like the hacking collective Cozy Bear, Americans are at a loss to fully understand the enormous threat they pose against us. Now is the time for a leader that is honest and strong, a leader who will stand up for America and make absolutely clear that if you cross their path, you will pay the price.

We do not need a weak, spineless president who is more concerned about tweeting than protecting Americans. We do not need a reckless National Security Advisor who believes he is above the law.

Lock him up!

That is right. That’s right. Lock him up!

I have called on Michael Flynn to admit his crimes, because he has put our nation’s security at extremely high risk through his duplicitous scheming with Russia.

Lock him up!

And you know why I say that? Because if I, a guy who knows his business, if I did a 10th of what he did, I would be in jail today!

Lock him up!

So, traitor Flynn, leave this country now.

He needs to go.

Mother Night, and other late night tales

When are we supposed to believe that people mean what they say? As children we’re taught to value trust and honesty, so idealism answers ‘always.’ Lived experience, however, dictates that not everyone learned the same lessons, so prudence retorts ‘sometimes.’ And, when strangers promise paradise, suspicion shouts ‘never!’ Over time it becomes easier to pick out a lie than it is to recognize the truth.

We are told by turns that, while one should never look a gift horse in the mouth, neither is there any such thing as a free lunch. Those who are fooled once are ceded no right to complain, while those who would fool twice are for naught but disdain. When strangers come bearing gifts  they merit suspicion, lest we go the way of the Trojans, and in so many small ways our language and our culture equips us for cynicism. We are, by training, inculcated against charlatans who seek advantage by flattery and deceit. Our watchwords are set against those who overpromise and underdeliver.

But what about the brazen thief? What about the swindler who will pick your pocket while bragging to your face about his skill?

The platitude of the last election was that Donald Trump’s supporters took him seriously, but not literally, whereas his opponents took him literally, but not seriously. So it went that they were comfortable with the exaggerations and the bluster because they recognized it for what it was. And when alarm was raised about the same subjects, the warnings were dismissed as the hysterical reaction of detractors who were clinically missing the point.

To a degree that was true. Donald Trump’s supporters knew that they weren’t going to get everything he promised, and telling them so made no difference. In electing a dealmaker they expected prevarication alongside negotiation. But, while they were right to deride the left for misunderstanding his appeal, the problem is mirrored. They also misunderstood his danger. They did not take what he meant literally seriously.

Besides promising rejuvenation and renewal, Donald Trump promised woe. He promised vengeance in place of justice and belligerence in place of sobriety, and it was not bluster.

We were, I think, ill-prepared to react to honesty. Where we might otherwise see through false promises which are made to disguise ill-intent, the same malevolence expressed openly and without shame is not taken seriously. Donald Trump constantly outdid himself in extremism, but for each statement the rebutting refrain was that it was a mistake to believe him.

There is no longer any excuse for not taking him at his word. Whatever his innermost thoughts might be, whatever his secret intentions, whether he was always in earnest or only sometimes, Maya Angelou’s advice rings true: “when people show you who they are, believe them.”

By words and by actions, Donald Trump has demonstrated only a casual regard for human life. He has shown that he takes it as just another bargaining chip: to be spent when necessary. In his rush to halt the imagined danger of terrorists entering our country among refugees, he sowed enormous harm by separating families, rousting people from their homes, and even in some cases preventing them access to medical care.

His response, expressed through his surrogates, was dismissive. Those lives disrupted were merely inconveniences. And to him, it’s true.

Far beyond that though, he has also promised torture, plunder, and murder. Take out their families, he said. Extract an eye for an eye. Anything that they do shall be permitted to us, and more besides. Casting morality out, he has vowed that his only guide will be satisfaction of the basest human instinct for raw revenge.

Those closest to him carry the same attitude. Michael Flynn is proud of his Islamophobia, as he believes his fear is not only rational, but will aid in the “world war” that he plans to fight against a religion. The same is true of Stephen Bannon, who casts refugees and immigrants in the same racist light that permitted the imprisonment of thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent on the pretense that they constituted a “fifth column.” He too relishes the thought of global war against an essentialized Muslim enemy.

This last weekend an American raid in Yemen left tens of civilians dead, including an eight year old American girl. Sean Spicer, confronted by his boss’ stated preference for murdering civilians when they’re found in the vicinity of terrorists, could offer only weak deflections from the question at hand: was it an example of Trump living up to his promises?

The Trump administration exists as a prolonged provocation, and as such the things they do are too easily dismissed as idle threats, simple lies, or posturing. But, threats remain idle only so long as their agents lack power, and now that he has realized the power to make them good, Donald Trump is proving his honesty.

When someone promises harm, take them in deadly earnest.