Vinoth Ramachandra

Security Myths

Posted on: September 16, 2011

Ten years on, media commentary on 9/11 is legion, while other events, equally horrific, are quickly forgotten. Three days after the 9/11 attacks, Howard Zinn, the distinguished American historian and author of A People’s History of the United States, wrote: “The images on television horrified and sickened me. Then our political leaders came on television, and I was horrified and sickened again. They spoke of retaliation, of vengeance, of punishment. I thought: they have learned nothing, absolutely nothing,  from the history of the twentieth century, from a hundred years of retaliation, vengeance, war, a hundred years of terrorism and counter-terrorism, of violence met with violence in an unending cycle of stupidity.”

Zinn continued: “We need new ways of thinking. A $300 billion dollar military budget has not given us security. Military bases all over the world, our warships on every ocean, have not given us security. Land mines, a ‘missile defence shield’, will not give us security… We should take our example not from our military and political leaders shouting ‘retaliate’ and ‘war’ but from the doctors and nurses and medical students and firemen and policemen who have been saving lives in the midst of mayhem, whose first thoughts are not violence, but healing, not vengeance but compassion.”

Since Zinn penned those words, the U.S military budget tripled to nearly a trillion dollars, and American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which have claimed far more lives than were lost on 9/11) have squandered the deep sympathy for Americans that was widespread immediately after the attacks on American soil. Despite the killing of Osama bin Laden, the US and Western Europe are no less vulnerable to terror attacks than they were ten years ago.

The New York Times of 31 December 2007 carried an editorial insisting that the United States could no longer be called a “democratic” society. The editorial listed a succession of state-sanctioned abuses of American citizens, including eavesdropping, illicit body searches, arbitrary arrests, torture by the CIA and repeated violations of the Geneva Conventions, all done by government officials without apology and under the aegis of waging a “war on terror”. Other governments took a leaf out of the Bush administration’s book and re-described all their civil conflicts as “wars on terror” which justified introducing or extending draconian “emergency laws” and brutal policies of repression against any dissidents.

It is incumbent on governments to provide security for their citizens. But when “national security” overrides all moral considerations, one is forced to ask whether such a society is actually worth defending. If my “security” is obtained at the cost of harming, degrading or endangering the lives of innocent others, then I should be willing to forego that security. Security obsessions are inexhaustible and insatiable; and once we go down that path, whether as individuals wanting to live in “secure environments” (e.g. gated condominiums) or governments pursing every potential “security threat’, it is difficult to change direction. Groups and persons targeted as “threats” are turned into objects and excluded from the moral universe. They can be the targets of “pre-emptive” eliminations, unilaterally undertaken.

The only people who are ever arraigned before war crimes tribunals are those on the defeated side. Victors have never had to answer for war crimes and other abuses of human rights. (If the Sri Lankan regime is ever arraigned by the UN for war crimes, as is currently being threatened, it will be a historical “first”!). The inquiry into the Abu Ghraib outrage never reached the top echelons of the American military command; let alone the top men in the political administration who sanctioned the use of torture.

In an interview with an online American journal in late 2008, I was asked what difference Obama’s election as the new American President would make worldwide. I said that, while Obama’s election was a good thing for US domestic politics, it would not make an iota of difference to foreign policy. Look back over the past sixty years and you will not observe much difference between Republicans and Democrats where U.S military and corporate interests are concerned.

Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration has refused to prosecute any members of the Bush regime who were responsible for war crimes, including some who admitted to torture. Obama has claimed the right to assassinate anybody, including American citizens, suspected of belonging to terrorist networks, merely on grounds given by the CIA, something Bush never claimed publicly. Also, the US has greatly expanded the use of unmanned drone attacks in Afghanistan and Northwest Pakistan, violating humanitarian rules of engagement by shifting the risks to non-combatants away from American military personnel.

US “exceptionalism” is deeply paradoxical. On the one hand, you have a nation, the first liberal democracy in the world, with a great Constitutional tradition recognizing natural human rights.  On the other hand, however, it is the single biggest cause of cynicism about human rights and the single biggest obstacle to the implementation of those rights by governments around the world. The cynicism is prompted not only by the vast gulf between rhetoric and reality within the US; but also by the way the US, while denouncing other governments’ human rights records (excepting, of course, Israel), refuses to abide by key international human rights conventions, shields its own officials from prosecution, and consistently invokes national sovereignty and American “national interest” over the global common good.

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25 Responses to "Security Myths"

[...] this typically perceptive post from Vinoth Ramachandra outlines some of the problem: Ten years on, media commentary on 9/11 is legion, while other events, [...]

It would be easier to glean something useful from this post, if the author could refrain from exaggerating every point he attempts to make. There is a difference between careful analysis and a hate-driven diatribe/

Greg, you have to clarify what you mean by ‘exaggerating every point’ and ‘a hate-driven diatribe’. Maybe you should engage with what Vinoth had actually written, and demonstrate examples of what you consider to be ‘careful analysis’.

Philip, don’t worry about Greg. He is my resident “troll”- there is a lot of stuff written about guys like him who form “parasitic” relationships with a blog/website. They thrive on attention and trading insults, not debating viewpoints. So, I just let him be…

Hi, I don’t really have anything to add except that I found the stuff you had to say about security very challenging. I wrote a little response to your piece on my blog here (http://martinheather.blogspot.com/2011/09/what-price-security-what-price-life.html), should you be interested.

Thanks,

–Heather in New Zealand

I think possibly Mr. Ramachandra has a bit too simplistic a view of the United States and its world wide operations. Having been in the US Army for 6 years, and an Army spouse of a military intelligence officer for 22, I can guarantee that what you read in the newspapers may be the truth, it may not, or it may be what “they” want you to think is the truth. The US government does not reveal all of its sources, intentions, or plans. As I sit typing this reply in the comfort of a home where I can walk the streets safely and not be accosted by the police, I and everyone else on this planet have no idea of the number of terrorist attacks that were thwarted because of the work done by the FBI, CIA, DIA, etc. And anyone who thinks Abu Ghraib was torture has no idea what torture really means.
That said he is right that from a worldwide perspective, it doesn’t really matter who is elected as President–our policies don’t change much or very quickly. But I think in some respects that is a good thing. What would our allies think if every four years (or 8) we changed our policies and intentions toward other nations? International foreign policy should not be that fickle.

Ms. Powers, thank you for your comment. Frankly, I don’t know how to scale acts of torture the way you seem to do. I simply followed Article 1 of “The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” which defines torture as: “Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

What was uncovered at Abu Ghraib included rape and murder among other criminal offences against prisoners of war. I left out of my post interrogation techniques at Guantanamo, Bagram and elsewhere, and against which the ICRC and human rights organizations have campaigned.

As for the “consistency” of U.S foreign policy, I am glad you agree with me. However, I don’t understand your defence of it. Consistency by itself is hardly a virtue. Libya has had a consistent foreign policy for the past 40 years. And, as for North Korea, that consistency goes back even further…

Dear Philip,
Re: Greg’s comment: I’ll cite some of the statements throughout this post which exaggerate.

Paragraph 1
“media commentary on 9/11 is legion, while other events, equally horrific, are quickly forgotten.”
(This is exaggeration. 9/11 is unique in recent American history and so commentary is bound to proliferate on it. I live outside the US and I don’t think the commentary is inordinately great.)

Paragraph 2
“they have learned nothing, absolutely nothing, from the history of the twentieth century, from a hundred years of retaliation, vengeance, war, a hundred years of terrorism and counter-terrorism, of violence met with violence in an unending cycle of stupidity.”
(Granted, this isn’t the author’s comment but he is quoting it with approval. The author later allows that it’s incumbent upon governments to provide for the security of their people. This cannot be done totally without violence if nations are attacking it but that is what the author seems to imply is possible.)

Paragraph3
“A $300 billion dollar military budget has not given us security. Military bases all over the world, our warships on every ocean, have not given us security”
(Exaggeration again. Compared to other major countries the US is relatively secure and terrorists have not been able to accomplish another major attack since then. Our military also provides security for many other nations, many of which do not set aside much money for defense.)

Paragraph4
“Since Zinn penned those words, the U.S military budget tripled…” (I’d like to see the source on that. I can’t find it anywhere. And the numbers I do find do not verify match this.)

“Despite the killing of Osama bin Laden, the US and Western Europe are no less vulnerable to terror attacks than they were ten years ago.”
(I think the US is far less vulnerable than before. i.e. It hasn’t happened again. And the killing of OBL, who ordered the 9/11 attacks, will certainly give many pause before they order similar attacks.)

Paragraph 5
“The New York Times of 31 December 2007 carried an editorial insisting that the United States could no longer be called a “democratic” society.”
(To say that the US is no longer a democratic society is ludicrous. If the US is not democratic then there are no democratic societies. Looks like the NYTimes exaggerates too.)

Paragraph 6
“a succession of state-sanctioned abuses of American citizens, including eavesdropping, illicit body searches, arbitrary arrests, torture by the CIA and repeated violations of the Geneva Conventions”
(this is exaggeration… no context for the statement; no weighing it against freedoms and systems in place to give citizens recourse; just hyperbolic adjectives combined with colorful vocabulary.)

Paragraph 7
“It is incumbent on governments to provide security for their citizens. But when “national security” overrides all moral considerations…”
(ALL moral considerations? exaggeration again.)

Paragraph 8
“The inquiry into the Abu Ghraib outrage never reached the top echelons of the American military command; let alone the top men in the political administration who sanctioned the use of torture”
(The author presupposes that the blame should reach the top echelons. This is speculation and prejudice not based on fact. While what happened at Abu Ghraib was wrong, it’s not been proven by any stretch of the imagination that “top men in the political administration” sanctioned it.)

Paragraph 9
“while Obama’s election was a good thing for US domestic politics, it would not make an iota of difference to foreign policy”
(exaggeration again… it has made some difference but the realities in the world stay the same from President to President so the policies change slowly and incrementally)

Paragraph 10
” Also, the US has greatly expanded the use of unmanned drone attacks in Afghanistan and Northwest Pakistan, violating humanitarian rules of engagement by shifting the risks to non-combatants away from American military personnel.”
(enemy combatants shift the risks to non-combatants when they do not identify themselves in uniforms and consistently live with, strategize amongst, and store weapons with non-combatants.)

Paragraph 11
“On the other hand, however, (the US) is the single biggest cause of cynicism about human rights and the single biggest obstacle to the implementation of those rights by governments around the world.”
(The US is the single biggest EXCUSE for governments around the world to not implement better human rights. The author presupposes that so many other governments would be so much more morally upright if it weren’t for the US government’s failings. Is it not plain to see that countries like North Korea, Iran, Syria, Burma, and a whole host of others would continue to do whatever they want to their countrymen regardless of what the US does? The author attributes far too much influence to the US and far too many failings. Exaggeration once again outweighs any sense of balance and fair-minded thinking.)

Philip, you don’t seem to have read many of the other comments on the other posts on this blog. Most of the others who disagree with the opinions stated here and who try to “engage with what Vinoth had written” get belittling, dismissive, and condescending replies. Things like “you need to read your Bible” or “can anyone tell what this person is trying to say?” are the standard non-responses. The invitation to engage and debate does not seem to be genuine.

Consistency is at least a known quantity. Yes in Libya, Yemen, Egypt, etc. there is repression of a multitude of sorts which is bad enough. But what now is going to replace it–anarchy? Don’t you think that is a descent further into the abyss? I am certainly not justifying the repressive regimes in place but I am leery of what will replace it–most certainly nothing good as the indicators show. Something more to pray for.

Also, my comment about the torture reported in Abu Ghraib was not meant so much a statement as a probe into what we know, how we know it, and who our sources are. As an example, a killing could have taken place within the prison and rather than reveal that it was done by an Afghan operative or a US plant from whom we received extensive information about the status of the government, Al Qaeda, etc., it is more “palatable” and to take the blame ourselves than to reveal our sources. I am not saying this example occurred I am merely pointing out that there is information, and there is misinformation–we do not necessarily know the difference.

One of the costs of maintaining and building such a great (not ‘good’) empire is that the citizens of the US consistently lie to ourselves about what it is that we do to others from (mostly non-white) countries.

Thank you, Vinoth for not shedding from the truth when most Christian leaders scream about God blessing America…

Many of us white Americans cannot separate our Christian and American identities. This is a result of a narrow education, shallow theology in our churches, and little significant contact with people who are different from us. In this regard, we are the mirror-image of the Islamist nationalists that we love to revile. In both cases, what we are up against is sheer idolatry!

Brian’s thoughtless, knee-jerk reactions to everything that Vinoth writes is typically a product of this idolatry. He cannot welcome any non-American viewpoint, or even other-American viewpoints (such as Zinn’s or the NYT editors) that disturbs his view of the world. Everything Vinoth says is called “exaggeration”. But his own comments like “If the US is not democratic then there are no democratic societies” is supposed to be taken as …. what?. It is sheer arrogance, an arrogance that reflects the widespread ignorance (of American history, the history and contemporary reality of other societies) and fear (of a world that no longer conforms to our stereotypes of “we good” vs “evil others”) that I encounter in many of our white, conservative Christian circles.

Brian,

Each of your point is easily refuted since it stand on flimsy grounds. Debunking all of them will be a total waste of time. However there is one observation of yours to which I take strong exception. This is wref to your comment in para 10.

It is crystal clear that you’ve led a very sheltered, comfortable existence and never suffered with people on the losing side, the side of the underdog which the media and those in power routinely define as terrorists. We have in our place the draconian “Indian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958″ for over 50 years now, whereby an ordinary Indian soldier can shoot to death anybody on mere suspicion with impunity! Whole villages have been uprooted and countless number of innocent people have been maimed, killed in fake encounters etc simply because they happen to shelter ‘unwanted elements’ or are seen with them… You can thank God you’re not among them.

I see US action in Afghanistan as no different- the way UAVs bombed into oblivion anybody in proximity with so called armed enemy groups. (At least the Indian Army is not seen as Christian…).

If “guilty by association” is your logic (from phrases like ‘not identify themselves in uniforms’, ‘consistently live with, strategize amongst’, ‘store weapons with non-combatants’) which warrants indiscriminate punitive action, then how different are you from the Islamic Fundamentalist Mohammad Atta, the one who piloted one of the airplanes on September 11 2001? You simply are happy or comforted to know your security is purchased at such expense it seems!? This really disturbs me.

Lastly, I am not an American citizen but I don’t believe that a mid/low level govt official can get the necessary Congressional sanction in terms of manpower, budget etc for opening a US prison/torture house “outside its territory”.

Thank you Brian for providing a level-headed, thoughtful response to Vinoth’s post. I may not agree with you on each of your points, but they are thoughtful, intelligent responses to Vinoth’s post. I wish the responders (Sarah and suantak) to your post would refrain from the ridiculous personal attacks.
Thoughtless? Arrogant? Sheltered?
Really?
Your posts are the very definition of knee-jerk, as opposed to his. You can disagree with his posts, without attacking the person.
FYI, I’m not American, nor white, but I sympathize with them for the constant vitriol they face nowadays – America-bashing is all the vogue right now, particularly in Christian circles. At least Vinoth’s strong criticisms are counterbalanced (in his books) by compliments to American Christianity where it’s deserved (in his opinion). Unfortunately there is no such thoughtfulness or balance from the rabid followers on his blog.

Roby, you may not be white or an American citizen, but all your comments on my Blog to date reveal that you belong very much in that “life-world”.

For instance, you use the generalization “America-bashing” which stems from that world. It stops serious conversation about issues and reflects a victim-mentality. Strangely, it is never used by those American citizens who are not socially privileged and are often real victims. It is exactly like the term “Islamophobia” which some influential Muslims in the West wield to shield themselves from any criticism. In this regard, Sarah is quite right that we are dealing with mirror-image ideologies. No one I mentioned in my post (Zinn, NYT) or anybody who has commented on it has said anything against “America”. So, please refrain from resorting to this meaningless term. (It is “knee-jerk” to use Sarah’s term!)

Also, I don’t see anything intemperate or uncivil in describing a person’s comments as “thoughtless” or “arrogant”. They were not judgments about a person. Nor was Suantak’s remark about Brian’s comments reflecting a “sheltered” (or as I would say, “privileged”) background demeaning to him at all. It can be false, but it is not demeaning.

But for you to describe those who disagree with Brian and you as my “rabid followers” is grossly insulting, demeaning and unChristian.

Vinoth,

How on earth can you say the NYT article says nothing against America?

You state quite clearly:
“The New York Times of 31 December 2007 carried an editorial insisting that the United States could no longer be called a “democratic” society”

I also find it quite amazing that you think describing a poster as “thoughtless” and “arrogant” are not judgments about a person, yet “rabid follower” is apparently grossly insulting, demeaning and unChristian.

Well, in that spirit allow me to say that I find your post completely thoughtless, full of arrogance and typically reflective of someone that has never lived in the country he criticizes for any serious length of time, and therefore simply overflowing with ignorance.

(By your definition, the above paragraph can’t possibly be described as intemperate, uncivil or judgmental).

If you were half-interested in having a “serious conversation”, as you put it, you would have taken the time to respond to Brian’s post.

Do you have any idea how guilty you are of the very generalizations you accuse others of using?
In your own words: “…it is never used by those American citizens who are not socially privileged”.
Really? Never? And I’m assuming you know this hard fact from the copious amounts of time you have spent with the aforementioned Americans? I won’t bother re-mentioning the various exaggerations and generalizations that Brian pointed out (and more) you are plainly guilty of in your post.

The dual standards you have in your interactions with people you disagree with are so obvious that its almost laughable. Unfortunately, it’s not funny, your style alienates the very people who would probably most benefit from engaging a different perspective, and that’s sad. I hope you enjoy preaching to the choir as that seems to be all you care about doing here, and I am happy to oblige and leave you with them.

Well, the US isn’t a democracy anymore. It’s a plutocracy.

Hi All,

This is Noam Chomsky on Obama.

Bush tortures. Obama just kills!

Of late I have begun to really like the RT news channel as an alternative to both CNN and BBC. In fact I used to check out with BBC on events CNN reported. Now this one gives us what is often or usually missed by both.

In the last RT link that I posted one reader was commenting if its Joseph Goebbels who runs the media in the states coz American citizens have to access RT to get the news on occupy wall street…
#############
Roby,

Your posts are increasingly become irksome and needlessly tendentious. I proved the thoughtlessness and unchristian nature of that idea floated by Brian that it’s ok to kill unarmed Afghan/Iraqi civilians if they happen to be in the vicinity of armed combatants whom the US calls enemy. Instead of addressing my comment on Brian’s comment, you label me and Sarah rabid followers? What is the meaning of that? Your bypassing the content of my comment to deflect the criticism of an idea by terming it as gross personal attack is a tactic many can see through.

If you or any other are not able to to see their cherished ideas being challenged or uprooted, why even bother to discuss/debate in public?

Also tell me the threshold of criticism that makes one 1)An anti Indian 2)Anti American?

Let me issue this request in bold. PRAY TELL ME WHICH POST OF BRIAN YOU WANT ME TO DEBUNK “if you are serious”. I can spare some time for one or two since you find them thoughtful and I don’t. I don’t want to deface Vinoth’s blog by a point by point rebuttal. BUT YOU MUST ADDRESS MY COMMENT TO BRIAN first.

Do you also realize what invite comments like thoughtless is the non reflective thinking expressed in sentences like “And I’m assuming you know this hard fact from the copious amounts of time you have spent with the aforementioned Americans”?
############
Jasdye,
India is the world largest plutocracy!

Hi Suantak,

I have no interest whatsoever in continuing to follow anything related to this blog, I find I learn and grow much more by personal interaction with people I respect. I find this medium (blog post comments) annoying more than anything.
Nothing personal, I just prefer to communicate face-to-face, and I’m beginning to abhor this format.

thanks and God Bless.

Hi Vinoth,

Have you heard this year’s BBC Reith lectures? You can download them from here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/reith

The latter three in particular are pertinent to this post – they’re by the woman who was in charge of Britain’s MI5 at the time of the attacks on 9/11.

Cheers,

–Heather :-)

Oh my, these are the 2011 Reith lectures!

Thanks very much Heather.

Hi Vinoth,

Way to be a “man” and delete my comment . . . typical.

If you want to comment on my Blog post, you are welcome. If you only want to fling insults at people, please go elsewhere.

Let´s all calm down children and learn to play nicely with one another. There have been insults on both sides of the fence, however it´s the mediator of this forum who has the last word about what is an insult and what is not.

No nation is perfect, but where does one draw the line between defending principles of a free and democratic society while sometimes going too far in that defense? As an example, I´m certainly not saying America is perfect, but as someone who lives in another part of the western world where military defense is greatly limited, I am thankful for what America does to protect my interests.

Also…I´m interested in seeing some statistics regarding whether or not policies developed post-9/11 have or have not made the U.S. and Western Europe less vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

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