Posts Tagged ‘torture


Vancouver: A Van Covered in Protest

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Vehicles captured my attention on several occasions while I was in Vancouver, with its “sky train,” compact taxis, cruise ships, yachts, and buses — most were vehicles for commerce, tourism, and leisure. During my first night I was drawn to loud music blaring several stories below from what must have been the longest stretch limousine I have ever seen, easily at least twice as long as the regular stretch limousines one can see, and this one was apparently a stretch Hummer. Young men in tuxedoes, followed by young women in ball gowns, all stepped in, coming out of what may be Vancouver’s most expensive hotel. I then realized that some of the windows of the limousine were in fact LED screens, projecting psychedelic patterns to the beat of the music, with graphic equalizers at two points on the side of the car. As it filled with about 20 young people, the lights at the front and the back of the vehicle began blinking and pulsing brightly. This must have been a group going to a prom, an American import in a country of mimics living the American Dream in Canada. The whole production, between hotel suites, clothing, and the car must have been in the many thousands of dollars, all to celebrate four years of feigned attention in class. If this is a recession, it is not hitting nearly hard enough, or, as we know is the case, it is not hitting all classes with equal ferocity.

Next, the Norwegian cruise ship. I had not seen a cruise ship since I was in Dominica, and it was “good” to know that I was back in a place that hitches its economic fortunes to the perceptions of others. Apparently I missed the disgorging, as few people were to be seen in the vicinity of the ship. I then headed to a district called Gastown, mostly to see why others have made such a big deal about it (and having seen it now, I still have the same question). On the way there, a very captivating sight, a refreshing change: the protest van. It really put the “Van” in Vancouver for me.

There was no sign of its owner, this blog on wheels. It occupies a prominent position in a central parking space, bordering a sidewalk that all tourists must pass when walking from the cruise ship terminal toward Gastown. Indeed, several were there photographing and videotaping it, quietly, and without comment. The signs are fixed to boards that are themselves screwed into a supporting structure that is itself fixed to the sides of the van, all sides of the van. A canoe sits on top of the van because, after all, this is still Canada, eh.

As one can see from the slide show, the persistent theme of the signs is imperialism and occupation (so right away my eyes turned sympathetic, needless to say). The main topics have to do with Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, oil, and torture. There is a fair amount of artistic work — hands that stick out of the van pointing at the viewer, small auxiliary signs jutting out from the corners of the van, individual words decorated (frequently with dripping blood, the Star of David, or the American flag). Yet, a quote that should have been attributed to Hunter S. Thompson, was instead erroneously attributed to Thomas S. Hunter (a good sign, perhaps, that someone has not fully learned American cultural references). Less forgivable to the pedant was the fact that the designer forgot to run a spell check on his van — again, just like a blog.

Another persistent theme across the signs was “Google ->”. On almost every sign there is a recommendation to the reader to look up a particular phrase in Google. What irony for “the real world” that the extracts from the “virtual world” staked a space in it. More irony, with this slide show that pulls the van back into the virtual world, where one will soon be able to Google “protest van” and come up with images of the van referencing Google. Our distinctions between the real and the virtual seem evermore threadbare.

If one needs a van for physical representations of what would otherwise be recognizable as blog posts…then you realize what is coming next? The Twitter protest bicycle, with short tweet-like statements affixed to each spoke on the wheels, to the frame, along the handle bar. If anyone sees the Twitter bicycle anywhere, please drop me a line, preferably 140 characters in length or less, and I promise to RT you.

In the meantime, here is a small sample of some of the images used in the slide show, at higher resolution:


Canada: The “Indirect” Torture State

Even more examples of how the Canadian federal state has betrayed its own citizens and collaborated in having them tortured abroad, and once again a story involving Syria. (Given all of the propaganda about Syria supporting terrorist groups, it’s interesting to note how Western governments inform Syrian authorities of the alleged/concocted “extremist” and “terrorist” ties of particular individuals, knowing the kind of treatment they will get in Syria.) What is also amazing, besides the double talk about Syria, is that there is no outpouring of massive, public protest in Canada. Perhaps that is in part due to the fact that mass media, such as the CBC, couch the entire issue: these are “Arab-Canadian men”, so not quite Canadian, and the role of the RCMP and CSIS was “indirect” — as one of the torture victims said in response:

The RCMP fully knew that I would be tortured if they sent questions. They sent it anyways. Does it make a difference if Justice Iacobucci said directly or indirectly? Well apparently directly means that the Canadian official would be the one holding the whip.

Update: Haroon Siddiqui at The Toronto Star did a good job of noticing that most of the media headlines did not match the content of the stories that followed. Instead, most headlines tended to minimize the level of Canadian complicity. Syria was motivate to imprison and torture these individuals at the urging of Canadian officials in institutions such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and Foreign Affairs. No consular protection was afforded to these citizens. In one case, Canada urged Egypt not to release one of them after had been transferred there from Syria. CSIS furnished the questions to be used in the Syrian interrogations.

In other words:

This is a country where citizens are sent to be tortured with the assistance of the government.

Find a different way of framing this situation, in a manner that is just as plausible if not more so. If you cannot, ask yourself about what kind of state rules over you, and wonder about how different “liberal democracy” is from any of the other monstrous torture regimes, including the U.S. of course. Then ask yourself why you do nothing about it, and what that says about your role.

Sphere Related Content


“You can’t shoot kids … but you can pound them” — How insurgents are made

This is the last video in this series, the previous one being “Why can’t we shoot these kids?” For those of us who are not, and have not been in Iraq, this is one of the few ways we have of “seeing” events on the ground.

This is a group of British soldiers — when and where in Iraq is not specified — and it seems that they are responding to some protesters. A group of young boys is dragged into what appears to be a base, and then pummeled. A large group of fellow troops return from the streets and walk past, and nobody interferes. It may not meet some definitions of “savage brutality” (in which case, pardon me for saying this, but someone needs to get their nuts kicked by an army boot) but I doubt this will “win hearts and minds.” For a young boy, one can imagine that this experience will leave a lasting impression. We also do not know what happens after the video ends, whether the boys are released, or further detained, etc.

Unlike the last related post, I should not neglect to mention that there is little someone like myself can do to verify this video, to contextualize it, to interview the troops, and to figure out if the cruel narrative of a man who seems to be having an orgasm at the sight of vanquished boys was added after the video was made by someone who was not present. Personally, I have been given no reason to doubt its authenticity, but one can never be absolutely certain with materials posted on YouTube. Having said that, I thank RAIM for bringing my attention to this video.

And in Canada today, the release of the Guantanamo interrogation tapes of Omar Khadr, captured as a young boy in Afghanistan and abused. This is Canada’s continuing scandal of neglect and participation in the violation of the same international laws it claims to hold sacred.


The Colonization Will be Televised

“For a long time — at least six decades — photographs have laid down the tracks of how important conflicts are judged and remembered. The Western memory museum is now mostly a visual one”Susan Sontag

When a conservative British daily such as The Telegraph can feature a commentary (“Execution gives Saddam a martyr’s crown“) condemning the execution of Saddam Hussein, with such strong statements as: “grotesquely botched execution,” that Saddam Hussein was “shown dying with dignity and no little courage at the hands of hooded thugs,” and thus, “the martyr’s crown surely beckons,” then one can just begin to guess what the reactions would be in the colonized world. In fact, it’s not so much a matter of guessing, when there have been protests in several nations, not just in the Middle East, plus countless caustic newspaper editorials from Malaysia to North Africa–and not because Saddam Hussein had a large and adoring following. Everything about the pursuit of Saddam Hussein has shown tremendous blood lust, fierce jingoism, and most of all, a desire to humiliate the vanquished.

Huge numbers of Americans hated Saddam Hussein without really knowing anything about this man who never attacked their nation, who never invaded their soil, and who at one time was the darling of their own elites and their many wealthy business partners who dominate the Gulf states. In North America we have been told countless times that we live in “the civilized world,” by political leaders such as George W. Bush. These words should ring as loudly as they ring hollow, for they necessarily imply an other half: the uncivilized world. A war against the uncivilized world then, by force of history and custom, can easily be translated into a colonial war against “savages.”

Is there anyone left who will still protest that the world of 2007 is fundamentally different from the world of 1492, or the imperial “scramble for Africa” of the late 1800s? Would anyone still like to argue that the act of putting conquered natives on display, as part of a gory freak show, is something of the distant past? Does any scholar still use the term “post-colonial” as if it actually meant something?

Not in my lifetime have I seen the overthrow of a leader of a foreign nation resemble, in such a macabre manner, a vulgar Mafia “hit” (killing his family, blowing up his home). What I dreaded and expected from the beginning, knowing the extent to which Western culture lionizes imagery, not to mention electronic images, was for the humiliation to be televised. The act of “embedding” journalists with invading forces mandated this outcome from the outset. We were, once again, to be given a front row seat in the conquest of another nation, and this was presumably being done for our benefit. As in recent times, where spectators could see a bombing, from the point of view of the bomb, audiences would be socialized and trained to identify with the conqueror, and damn it, they were to enjoy it.

When, in the early weeks of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Iraqis broadcast video segments on television of four American soldiers who had been taken prisoner, the American forces howled about “the Geneva Convention,” which they had, to their convenience, suddenly rediscovered. Was their response more humane, more civilized?

  1. Claiming to show “thousands” of Iraqi soldiers being held as prisoners in southern Iraq, Western media outlets sprayed their front pages with gigantic images of the captives in the early weeks of the invasion, being marched with their hands on their heads.

  2. Saddam Hussein’s two sons were photographed, dead, after they had fallen to American gunfire, and these images were published worldwide.

  3. Saddam Hussein’s “spider hole” (terminology meant to add to the dehumanization) was photographed, as was his medical examination by American captors, like a wild animal caught by White big game hunters, as if undergoing delousing before being put on public display.

  4. Saddam Hussein’s days in what was indisputably a Kangaroo Court, televised, also gave many pleasure, to see this man made to fight when the outcome had been predetermined, to allow him an appeal when his sentence was already made certain, and to watch his furor grow at the lynching that was inevitably in store for him; all of this would give some the same perverse joy that wicked children show in pulling the wings off of a fly or burning a caterpillar under a magnifying lens.

  5. Saddam Hussein’s execution, on government television no less, with complete footage released by two government officials who were permitted to openly record the proceedings with their cell phones, to the accompaniment of sectarian insults, and distributed across the Internet.

  6. And, I do not need to remind anyone of the countless Abu Ghraib photographs.

[I would like to refer readers to Susan Sontag‘s critique, “Regarding the Torture of Others, which appeared in The New York Times on May 23, 2004.]

Is all of this just an accident? Obviously not, it is done by design. So what is the design?

Whether it is Pirates of the Caribbean 2 or Apocalypto or the murder of Saddam Hussein, we are being treated to a ghoulish feast of images of the supposed barbarity of others, yet displaying our own in greater abundance. In an effort to stem the tide of photographs and videos which show the extreme vulnerability of coalition forces in Iraq (whether it is the famed series of “Juba the Sniper” videos showing an Iraqi sniper at work against US troops, filmed from the perspective of the barrel of his rifle, or the collage of roadside bomb clips where the trajectories of American bodies up through the tank and into the air is traced by an illuminated red circle added by a video editor–my, how the uncivilized learn the arts of civilization so quickly), clearly the “civilizers” have done no better than the “uncivilized.” That is also not an accident, not a stumbling into a situation of contradiction.

What I find most disturbing (as if all of this was not disturbing enough) is that these images are shown to us…as if we were expected to enjoy them. And that, I think, is the answer to what appears, superficially, to be a contradiction we enjoy (the civilized gawking at the uncivilized in what is after all a very uncivilized manner). When our political leadership and the media establishment treat us to these spectacles, they expect us to gaze at these pictures of conquest without seeing ourselves at work in the gazing. To put it bluntly, the one who takes pleasure at the sight of the conquest of the other avoids seeing himself as the demented, drooling savage he claims to abhor. These photos and films permit viewers to watch, themselves unseen, but even worse than that: barring them from seeing themselves in the act of looking. This is what the deliberate, studied, and regulated display of these images is meant to accomplish: our own colonization as we are emotionally and unconsciously recruited into celebrating the oppressor. The fact that this does not work nearly so well, so smoothly, in reality is something that gives one some hope.



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