Tag: abuse

Whitney Houston, Chris Brown, and Grammy Irony

image taken from Jezebel.com

This Sunday the 2012 Grammy Awards attracted more attention than normal due to the untimely passing of Whitney Houston on the eve of the awards show.
During the Sunday night event, numerous artists dedicated their award to Houston or mentioned her amazing talents and the loss her death will mean to the industry.
Interestingly, running counter to this somber dedication theme of the evening was a notable counter story: the ordained comeback of Chris Brown’s career. Chris Brown was made infamous in 2009 when he was charged with beating his then girlfriend Rihanna. Images of a brutalized Rihanna surfaced across the web and Brown’s skyrocketing career was effectively snuffed out with big names in the business like Jay-Z and Kanye refusing to associate with the artist.
But that was 2009 and this is 2012. Since the incident Brown has had a subsequent album that rose to the top of the charts. He’s back in favor with key R&B players, and is largely viewed as one of R&B’s sexiest males (Glamour.com nominated him the hottest male solo artist in 2010).
The 360 turn-around for Brown culminated at the Grammys on Sunday, where he performed alongside the other industry top-players, and won for best R&B album.
There are several troubling aspects of these counter-themes to Grammys.
First, that a man who was publicly associated with domestic abuse would be so generously celebrated at the same awards show that made tribute to Whitney Houston, a woman who herself suffered a public battle with domestic abuse from her former husband Bobby Brown.
Second, the music industry’s general amnesia or hypocritical acceptance of an artist it chose to shun just three years ago- what about all the hype in 2009 about sending a message about violence and respecting women?
Finally, what’s most concerning has been some of the unexpected responses to, and defense of, Chris Brown’s return- including a surge in women not only supporting him, but also sending tweets about their desire to ‘be beaten’ by him (see the following summary of tweets if you want to be completely dismayed).
What does this all mean about the state of domestic abuse generally, and the music industry and its promotion of womanizing, degrading, and violent lyrics and artists? Does no one connect Houston’s drug abuse to her experience of domestic abuse and her tumultuous private life? I don’t look to awards shows to stand as moral beacons, but I do think it is worth considering these counter Grammy narratives as a signal of the state of popular culture and gender relations at the moment.


Of Lords and Flies

The release of the first three of a reported 4,000 photos and videos from an American “kill team” in Afghanistan threatens to become the next “Abu Ghraib.”  The horrific images of civilian corpses being photographed with grinning American troops raises important questions about the American military’s ability to maintain professional standards and discipline; soldiers’ (racialized) understanding of and ability to engage with foreign societies; and the underside of military culture. In other words, contrary to the military’s spin machine, these images are not an aberration or simply the product of one “rogue” unit. Moreover, the central issue is not how to manage the “fall out” of (righteous) Muslim rage but how to encourage Americans to take a hard look at military culture in a time of unrelenting affective militarism.

Not An Exception or an Aberration

Another alleged kill team was caught in Iraq under the command of Col. Michael D. Steele in 2005.  Steele’s brigade allegedly murdered at least 8 unarmed Iraqi men and intended to murder more civilians when a soldier finally disobeyed illegal orders (New Yorker, 7/6/2009).  Steele’s Charlie Company (a.k.a. “Kill Company”) kept a kill board (a dry erase board) in which they tallied all kills, whether civilian or militant, as a way of keeping score in a game between platoons. Notably Steele was praised by his superiors for “combating terrorism” at the same time as he was being investigated by the US military for committing a massacre.

Reports by Iraq War veterans of the practice of carrying “drop weapons” and “drop shovels” to plant on dead civilians leads one to suspect that the murder of civilians may have been more widespread than just one brigade. Aaron Glantz and Iraq Veterans Against War have described the practice of desecrating corpses (including running over them with humvees) and taking “trophy photos” of the dead in Iraq (IPS, 9/16/2008).

Although taking a large number of photos and videos of trophies is a relatively recent phenomenon, there are precedents at least going back to WWII. We know that the practice of taking physical trophies by defiling corpses has been a persistent feature of modern warfare. However, American troops seem to have abandoned their practice of beheading their enemies which was documented in the Pacific theater during WWII.

Of course, the US is not unique in having its soldiers accused of this subset of atrocity.  The Israeli army in October 2001 found photos of its soldiers gloating over the mutilated corpses of Palestinians (Sunday Telegraph, 10/14/2001).  The IDF denied reports that the ritualized practice of taking “trophy” photos of “big game” was widespread. However news reports stated that company commanders used such photos to motivate their troops and regularly carried such photos with them. The practice of collecting trophy photos had become so widespread that the “leisure and society” section of an unofficial Israeli army site carried photos of defiled corpses from the Lebanon war.

Bosnian Serbs were accused of collecting the ears of their victims and mixing animal parts and bones in with human remains in the mid-nineties. The Serbs tended to take photos of their victims prior to killing them in order to sell the photos to desperate family members seeking signs that their loved ones were still alive (USA Today, 8/3/1995).

In the Rape of Nanking, Japanese soldiers took photos of the atrocities and even the rapes they committed… One could go on with examples, but the point is that the practice of collecting physical and photographic trophies is not new to the US nor is it exclusive to the American military.  Given the prevalence of this type of behavior one could speculate that aspects of military culture incite such violations of norms and that the military may at times even benefit from illegal tactics.

Snuff Films in the State of Nature

But what do the photos actually tell us about military culture? The photos and accounts of the American kill team’s exploits in Afghanistan reveal soldiers who seem to have believed that they had entered into a kind of tribalized state of nature or at least a lawless zone. The 12 soldiers who composed the “kill team” allegedly murdered civilian targets at random, abused corpses, and collected body parts (including teeth and fingers of their civilian victims) as trophies.

According to Der Spiegel, the murders of Afghan civilians were “tightly scripted” and highly staged to fit particular standard narratives — as if these men thought they were repeatedly playing video games. One of the American soldiers told his father in a Facebook chat that his buddies had detonated a grenade to stage a plausible scenario before “mowing” down their innocent victim.  The scenario was again enacted to slaughter Mullah Allah Dad who was ordered to kneel in a ditch before throwing a grenade at him, shooting him and then collecting their “trophies”…

Why did these men so extensively document their crimes?  Were these intended as actual snuff films? With whom did the soldiers hope to share their documents? The answers are not yet known.

What we do know is that the soldiers in this unit were consuming large amounts of illicit and prescription drugs. A lawyer for one soldier has argued the unit should not have been allowed into the battle-space given the pervasive use of drugs and medications. Of course, while pervasive drug use may explain some of the soldiers’ distorted judgment and paint a picture of lax institutional discipline, it does not explain the specific content of the ritualized crimes or the desire to create documentary evidence of the atrocities.

What is needed is a theorization of the images taken by kill teams. If, as Michael Shapiro argues, the photograph is considered a simulacrum of the real, then the photograph carries with it an evidentiary function. The photo captures and reinforces existing structures of power relations (William Callaghan, “Trauma and Community,” Theory & Event 10, no. 4, 2007). One wonders if the intent is not to freeze in time a state of exception; to capture the space of the state of nature. If this line of speculation is at all correct, it reveals a desire to capture a moment of overwhelming power.  In essence it reveals a persistent anxiety about a return to an ordinary and generally powerless life.  The problem is that these photos are clearly staged in a ritualized fashion. Perhaps the aestheticization of brutality anesthetizes the viewer, and in a manner similar to pornography, requires the perpetual collection of documentary evidence to achieve the effect of the first viewing.  What else can explain the need to collect over 4,000 photos and videos? 


I wonder if he’s got facebook?

A former Israeli soldier posted pictures on facebook of herself with Palestinian prisoners who were tied up and blindfolded. In a photo album called “The Army …The Most Beautiful Time of My Life,” Eden Abergil posted these pictures and responded to friends’ comments.

One is particularly striking: a facebook friend of Abergil’s commented that she looked sexy in the pictures. Abergil responded:

Yeah I know lol honey. What a day it was. Look how he completes my picture. I wonder if he’s got Facebook!

I wonder if he’s got a facebook. I wonder if he’s got a facebook. Really?

Certainly, problems with the mistreatment of prisoners aren’t new. And maybe even the level of detachment from that treatment that is required to consider tying up prisoners sexy, take pictures of yourself doing it, post them on facebook, and wonder if the prisoners you tied up would like to be tagged on facebook can be found in earlier wars and conflicts in different forms. But it feels so cavalier, so base, so debasing reading it in the New York Times that it just seems like something different, something worse, something we should think is an emergency.

I guess, though, in the end, its not about whether this is worse than whatever came before it but instead about what can be done to communicate a message of unacceptability. That seems like a more complicated question, and one that I’ll be doing a lot of thinking about at a couple of conferences on Just War Theory over the next couple of weeks. More on these issues soon.


UK Torture Inquiry: Our BFD?

The coalition government here in the UK has announced that there will be an inquiry into torture and rendition alleged to have been carried out since 9/11. This was a major item platform for the LibDems and some Tories, the latter group while conservative, committed to a deep sense of eroding “British values”.

It’s early days, and we do not know what such a commission would look like, but if this Guardian article is correct, individuals will be named and shamed:

The judicial inquiry announced by the foreign secretary into Britain’s role in torture and rendition since September 2001 is poised to shed extraordinary light on one of the darkest episodes in the country’s recent history.
It is expected to expose not only details of the activities of the security and intelligence officials alleged to have colluded in torture since 9/11, but also the identities of the senior figures in government who authorised those activities.

This is – to put it in Biden terms – a BFD.

Some early thoughts:

First, there is no doubt some of the motivation here is for the other two parties to really stick it to Labour. But to be honest, it’s nothing that they haven’t brought onto themselves if the Inquiry does find that then-senior Labour MPs/Cabinet ministers knew they were acting illegally.

So, provided the allegations can be substantiated (I’m guessing at least some will), the bigger question will be if these individuals justified, in any way, of making the decisions they did, under the circumstances. (The Michael Walzer/Dirty Hands approach). Human Rights lobby groups are probably going to give a definite “no” to this but it will be interesting to see what an inquiry will say.

Any individual named by a commission would have a very difficult time traveling around the rest of the Western world, particularly Europe, for a very long time. While the commission would not in and of itself be a trial (it seems to be framed as an accountability mechanism more or less) it could lead to formal charges elsewhere. The UK is, after all, party to the ICC.

Finally, for relatively obvious reasons, I can’t see this happening in the US. Yet it seems clear that the decisions of US decision makers, and their impact on UK decision makers, is going to come to light. Like the Iraq Inquiry, a UK commission will effectively be putting US policy on trial.

However, I can’t see something like this happening in other countries like Canada either – where there is a good chance that senior government ministers in both political parties made decisions that contravened the CAT or their own domestic laws. Although, to be fair, the Canadian government at least held a commission as to why a citizen was permitted to be rendered to Egypt for torture and the Canadian government officially apologized. No official was ever held accountable.

Stay tuned…

Three Ideas for Fixing Our Prison System

The US needs prison reform as badly as it needs affordable health care.

I haven’t written about this before. Because America does such an excellent job of compartmentalizing its incarcerated population from its elite, those of us living in eastern urban areas rarely need to think about our prisons. Traveling across the wastelands of Kansas and Nebraska and Utah, however, where one is as likely to see a chain gang as an elk, and where the signs remind you not to pick up hitch-hikers instead of not to litter, one begins to give this some this thought. In 1998, the US surpassed the former Soviet Union as the world’s foremost jailer, with approximately 1 in 100 Americans behind bars as of last year. Compared to other advanced industrialized countries, the US imprisons 5 times more of its citizens per capita; half of these are African American.

The political economy of this “prison industrial complex” coupled with the political incentives to appear hard on crime have contributed to a dysfunctional and inhumane system. Our prisons are brutally overcrowded: in Chino, where a riot occurred early this month, 5,900 inmates were in a facility designed to hold 3,000. Treatment of prisoners often falls far below human rights standards. In June this year, Marcia Powell, a 48-year-old behind bars for prostitution, died of heat exhaustion after being left in an outdoor holding cell in 108-degree Arizona heat, prompting both an investigation by the Arizona’s Department of Corrections and questions by feminist activists as to why prositutes are being imprisoned in the first place, whereas those who make use of them rarely fall afoul of the law? Indeed, 82% inmates are imprisoned for non-violent “crimes”: thanks to the three-strikes-and-you’re-out law, one man is serving a life sentence in California for stealing a $2.50 pair of socks.

We should also bear in mind the impact on communities, families and society at large of such a highly-incarcerated population. As Vesla Weaver argued in a presentation I saw last Spring, incarceration shapes the lives not only of inmates but of their partners (who must now coordinate employment, social schedules and even their attire according to the rules attending prison visits), their children (many of whom lose parents for misdemeanors) and communities (who lose social capital when significant numbers of their young men are behind bars). The adverse effect of prison policies on families is too rarely a consideration in the political process.

I know much too little about this topic to offer anything like a comprehensive recipe for change, but here are three specific ways to improve things behind which readers of this blog can throw their support:

1) Federally enforce a zero tolerance policy on prison rape. In addition to sometimes-lethal physical and mental abuse, sexual abuse of inmates is not only commonplace but so acceptable in US society as to be fodder for political satire. (Interesting that what we are quick to condemn when inflicted on political prisoners is so easy to consider commonplace when targeted at those we consider “criminal.”) A a 2001 Human Rights Watch report showcased the epidemic of prison rape in the US. Congress responded by creating the Prison Elimination Act of 2003, largely designed to generate facts and recommendations. The Congressional National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, released its five-year study this past June, showing based on tens of thousands of interviews that nearly 60,000 inmates have suffered sexual abuse in prison. It also shows that more prisoners are abused by staff than by other inmates, and that gender minorities are at the greatest risk. The NPREC’s recommendations are that 5% of federal funding for prisons be contingent on states’ reduction in incidence rates in accordance with standards now being drafted by the Attorney General. But 5% may be much too low a penalty to check such well-entrenched abuse; and at any rate the federal government will also need to consider providing resources for states to implement the standards, which would involve a significant overhauling of prison culture.

2) Reform America’s sex-offender registry. Incarceration even for minor abuses has lasting effects even once a person leaves prison, due to stigma, lack of resources for reintegration, and political disenfranchisement. This is a broad problem but in no realm is it more dysfunctional the the national sex-offender registry, as outlined in a detailed and damning expose in The Economist. This system is a net which sweeps up so many people convicted under Puritanical US laws for things as minor as sleeping with a partner while both are underage, that it is rendered almost useless at the task of helping parents protect their children from genuine predators, yet it ruins the lives of not only “convicts” but their familes as well, preventing them from holding down jobs or taking their children to the playground. I concur with the proposals laid out in that article, which include:

“Instead of lumping all ‘sex offenders’ together on the same list for life, states should assess each person individually and include only real threats. Instead of posting everything on the internet, names could be held by the police, who would share them only with those, such as a school, who need to know. Laws that bar sex offenders from living in so many places should be repealed, because there is no evidence that they protect anyone: a predator can always travel. The money that a repeal saves could help pay for monitoring compulsive molesters more intrusively—through ankle bracelets and the like.”

3) Finally, restore voting rights to ex-cons.The patchwork of state laws disenfranchising over four million former felons from voting in federal elections nearly ensures that this population will be overlooked by the government. Last month, Sen. Russ Feingold and Rep. John Conyers introduced parallel bills in the House and Senate that would restore voting rights in federal elections to those currently denied this civil right. I can see nothing to lose from such a proposal and much to gain: citizens more likely to have a stake in the rule of law, a government more responsive to its incarcerated population, and a nation better served overall by a more humane criminal justice system. You can support this action by clicking here or linking to this post.

I could go on – and so can you, in comments. Point is, health care reform has dominated the headlines this summer, and it is of course widely overdue. But let’s not lose sight of glaring problems in the criminal justice system, and incremental changes underway that need our attention, support and oversight as well.


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