Paris, Beirut and Douma: A tale of three bombings

Much has been made and said and think-pieced on the fact that the terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 132 people and left over 350 injured received significantly more coverage in the Western press than the double suicide bombings days earlier in Beirut that killed 43 people and wounded 400 others.

One compelling answer has been: expectations. In Western Europe, it comes as a shock when “medieval” militants strap bombs to themselves and engage in wanton murder. When it happens over there, in the Orient, where the population is generally less pasty, it comes as little surprise. Well, that’s what they do, isn’t it? The Iraq phenomenon, in other words, where bombs going off in Baghdad is met with a shrug and a wire article on page 9.

That is not what they do in Lebanon, of course: Since the end of the civil war in 1990, it’s typically been what Israel has done there — blowing up Lebanese people — but not the Lebanese themselves or any outside non-state terrorists. The attacks that killed more than three dozen people were then a huge, devastating shock to people not used to such violence in their own neighborhoods.

Another aspect of the attacks that has been much commented upon has been the fact that when the media did cover the massacre in Beirut, it described the location of the bombings as a “stronghold” of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia. This description, critics, many Lebanese among them, created the perception that perhaps the target was something other than civilians — that the killed were not just, by and large, politically support of Hezbollah, but militants themselves who took up arms for the group.

Of course, the defensive editor might note, a “stronghold” can also be used to describe an area that staunchly supports a certain political party — when it comes to presidential politics, California is a Democratic stronghold, for instance, and that isn’t taken to mean that Californians are willing to take up arms for the Democratic Party (Republicans are another matter).

But that doesn’t quite cut it: Lebanon, being a part of the Middle East, is associated with violence, like the war being waged next door in Syria that has left more than a quarter-million people dead. Intent may matter in a courtroom, but when we use words what should be hyper-aware of is the effect and, intended or not, a stronghold in the Middle East will strike some as a legitimate military target.

About Syria, though, where millions have people have fled from routine violence to the relative safety of next-door Lebanon: Just two weeks ago there was a bombing there that, according to Doctors with Borders — a trusted source among the left when it comes to the U.S. bombing of its hospital in Afghanistan — at least 70 people were killed and another 550 injured in airstrikes and shelling on a marketplace in Douma.

“This was an extremely violent bombing,” said the director of a nearby hospital run by the group. “The wounds were worse than anything we’ve seen before, and there were large numbers of dead. We had to do many amputations.”

A total of 250 people required surgery to treat their wounds, the group said.

On a commentary posted by the watchdog group, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Jim Naureckas takes Vox’s Max Fisher to task for arguing that the media did a fair enough job trying to cover the attacks in Paris and Beirut. Naureckas notes that The New York Times covered Beirut on page 6 but ran three front-page stories on Paris the day after the attacks there — and six in total that day, and 15 more the the day after.

Beirut itself only seemed to get six dedicated stories, by my count, including wire articles that the Times republished, though the attacks there were mentioned in articles about Paris.

As for Douma? Neither the Times nor FAIR seem very interested in what happened there, despite a casualty count higher than either Beirut or Paris. The Times ran one first-day story to which the first four paragraphs were devoted to Douma and the final three about violence in other parts of Syria. It also ran an article from the AP, now unavailable on its website, about the bombings of hospitals in both Syria and Yemen. And that was it.

A search of “Douma” on FAIR’s website brings up no results.

What gives? The aforementioned Iraq phenomenon: We’re used to death in Syria, it’s what people do there, at least since the 2011 uprising was crushed in a heil of bullets and barrel bombs. For the media-skeptical left, the violence in places in like Douma is also inconvenient. The perpetrator of the October 31 attack was the Russian-armed government of Bashar al-Assad, which according to the United Nations “remains responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties.”

With much of the left stuck on a narrative that’s become increasingly untenable since Barack Obama’s “red line” on the use of chemical weapons was crossed in 2013 and the U.S. responded by bombing every group in Syria except those allied to the Syrian government, noting these attacks would be considered as aiding the imperialists’ cause — the one’s in Washington who perceive the collapse of the Assad regime as “the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests,” not the one’s in Russia who don’t bother with the rhetoric critical of a hereditary dictator.

Syrian lives matter, but only if their deaths serve the story many on the anti-imperialist left refuse to abandon, despite the 14-month U.S.-led air campaign in Syria targeting not Damascus, but places like the Islamic State “stronghold” of Raqqa. And no one objects to that language because, rather than glassy-eyed nuance, it’s been more convenient to cast Syrians not aligned with the Syrian government as terrorists, plus Russia and that government occasionally bomb Raqqa too, for sovereignty.

It is of course true, and people are right to point out, that the corporate press in the United States and Western Europe privilege certain victims over others, justifying deaths here and ignoring there — the sad thing is, to those of us who expected better, the bleeding-heart left does too.


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Was the Cold War good for the world?

Was the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the many hot proxy wars it spawned in Asia and the Americas, a good thing for mothers and their children and other living things? That’s what Patrick Cockburn, long-time war correspondent argues in a recent piece intended to show that yet another escalated proxy war between major powers could, in fact, be great for the long-suffering people of Syrian.

A go-to expert on world affairs for center-left news organizations and British lawmakers alike — last month he encouraged the latter to quit worrying and join the increasingly crowded war on terror in Syria’s skies — the latest column from “our respected commentator,” as his employers at The Independent describe him, should call into question whether he is fact worthy of respect from those on the left. Titled, “Syria crisis: Let’s welcome Russia’s entry into this war,” Cockburn argues that the bombs being dropped by the Russian state should be welcomed by those of his readers outraged by the thousands of bombs dropped by the U.S.-led coalition over the last year.

The crux of Cockburn’s argument is that what the war in Syria needs is to become even more of a war by proxy between the world’s most powerful nations. He quotes U.S. President Barack Obama pledging not to let that happen — and then he proceeds to make what he believes is his killer point.

“But the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, and the global competition that went with it, had benefits for much of the world,” Cockburn asserts. “Both superpowers sought to support their own allies and prevent political vacuums from developing which its opposite number might exploit,” he writes. “Crises did not fester in the way they do today.”

That Cockburn, a respected commentator, could write the above and agree to have it published in a public forum where others can read it calls into serious question whether he is in fact worthy of respect, from those on the left and/or those familiar with the history of the world, as someone who comments on things for a living. From his comfortable perch in Britain, aided by the comforting distortion of nostalgia, Cockburn can look back on his 20s with his fondness, the Cold War characterized by bad-ass action flicks and those halcyon days of no-string college hookups.

For developing countries, though — for much of Asia and the Americas, or rather: the world — the friendly competition between the globe’s leading imperialist powers was a festering sore that promoted the forces of reaction wherever its influence was felt (“left” as well as right) and often enough led those who fought for progress and social justice to a mass grave.

The extinguishing of millions of lives was directly linked to an imperial desire not to extinguish the merest chance that people in one country might side with another. The U.S. may have cynically deployed the rhetoric of anti-communism to dispatch with anyone to the left of Ronald Reagan, but the Pentagon Papers, the classified account of the U.S. war in Indo-China, revealed that U.S. policymakers were as stupidly paranoid as their policies made them seem.

In the late 1940s, State Department officials declared in an internal memo that they had discovered evidence of a “Kremlin-directed conspiracy” in “virtually all countries.” The one glaring exception: Vietnam, the country where U.S. intelligence had itself funneled arms to the Vietnamese communist, Ho Chi Minh, to aid his fight against imperial Japan. That lack of evidence of a Soviet connection to a former U.S. ally, however, was taken as all the more evidence that such connection existed. Indeed, “It may be assumed,” the department asserted, “that Moscow feels Ho and his lieutenants have had sufficient training and experience and are sufficiently loyal to be trusted to determine their day-to-day policy without supervision.”

Well over a million non-British, non-Russian, non-U.S. citizens died in Vietnam as a result of this festering competition in deranged paranoia. And it wasn’t just the U.S., of course, that killed because of it, though it does enjoy the ignoble privilege of scoring the highest body count.

In 1956, workers in Hungary, dissatisfied with the USSR’s shift from war communism to state capitalism, demanded a return to the Soviet-system that prevailed at the dawn of the Bolshevik revolution: workers in councils making decisions, democratically, rather than receiving dictates from an unaccountable party above. The subsequent uprising led to Hungary’s exit from the Warsaw Pact — and then the Soviet Union sent in the tanks, unwilling to lose what it saw as a defensive buffer between it the free-market capitalist West, the demands of the proletariat be damned. Hundreds were killed and thousands more detained, the workers who ought to form the basis of a workers’ state, and who if listened to may have prevented the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse, dismissed as the product of capitalist subversion.

In the name of preserving relations with the West, however cold, the Soviet Union also turned its back on internationalism, urging revolutionaries in the developing world to embrace a go-it-slow approach to socialism. In Nicaragua and Cuba, for instance, armed insurrections launched by the Sandinistas and the 26th of July Movement against U.S.-backed dictators were discouraged and succeeded despite the early opposition of Moscow’s loyal Communist branches.

And when success did come in spite of Soviet opposition? The USSR’s “opposite number” swooped in to support the forces of counter-revolution, helping kill 50,000 Nicaraguans — backing a deposed dictator’s Contras in the name of democracy — and embargoing Cuba for more than half a century. At least 70,000 died in El Salvador because the U.S. preferred a military-run regime to the prospect of someone on the center-left assuming the title of president.

This is what Patrick Cockburn wishes for Syrians: For imperial powers to compete, and in effect collude, and determine the future of millions of people whose wishes and mere existence is too insignificant to note in his columns focused exclusively on the great powers and their statecraft. This sort of thinking, I would say, typifies the privilege of one for whom conflicts that kill a quarter-million people are merely fodder for columns in a British newspaper — and it belongs in a graveyard.

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FAIR is once again unfair to the Syrian people

Jim Naureckas of an organization called Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, which cares about fairness, and accuracy, in reporting, is curiously convinced that when activists on the ground in Syria say that “None of the areas targeted” by Russia’s bombing campaign “were controlled by IS,” that they are in fact lying. To prove this, Naureckas cites an article from the French wire service AFP, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), an organization FAIR’s own writers concede they would not normally cite as an authoritative source on Syria, indicating that Islamic State militants “shot dead seven men in Rastan.”Months earlier in a place not bombed by Russia.

Aha! The title of the post makes much of this: “No ISISWhere Russia Is Bombing – Except Last Week, When ISIS Was Killing Gay MenThere?” Except, again: There were activists, on the ground, with no apparent incentive to lie, stating quite clearly: “None of the areas targeted” – including “Zafaraneh, Rastan, Talbiseh, Makarmia and Ghanto” – were controlled by IS.

“We have been exposed to a wide range of weapons over the last five years, but what happened today was absolutely the most violent and ferocious, and the most comprehensive in the northern Homs countryside,” a doctor in the town of Rastan told Reuters. Eleven people died, he said, including three children and their dad, when their home was demolished by a Russian ordinance. “It was as if the house never was.”

FAIR doesn’t get around to mentioning such casualties, concerned as it is with proving that the Russians government was telling the truth when it asserted that those it bombed were members of ISIS. It even uses a photo of ISIS executing men accused of homosexuality from another source it would never normally cite, The Daily Mail, to suggest again that the activists are liars – though the photo is from months before, in another city that is not Rastan.

I choose to believe the activists and the doctor who tried to save the lives of those killed as a result of imperialist air power. I choose to believe the article cited by FAIR’s own writer that notes that the “dominant factions in Talbiseh and the nearby town of al-Rastan are tied to the Free Syrian Army,” not the Islamic State. But if FAIR wants to go with SOHR? Sure, let’s go with them. Per Reuters: “While Russia says its raids on Wednesday targeted the Islamic State group, locals in the opposition-held area say the jihadist group has no presence in the region – echoing the assessment of a U.S. official and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.”

Perhaps, in the name of fairness, and accuracy, Naurecakas should amend the post with a devastating correction, as he did one of the last times he wrote about Syria and claimed a regime chemical weapons attack was a false flag. Perhaps, I would suggest, he stop writing about Syria altogether.

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Syria’s rebels are empire’s pawns (except America’s favorite proxy)

Perhaps the most humorous aspect of the latest drivel published by Jacobin in defense of the Syrian regime headed by Bashar al-Assad is the way the “anti-imperialist” author is forced by their own tautological premise to downplay the decisive role that U.S. imperialism has played in defending what appears to be a leftist revolution (with, as always, flaws) currently taking place in Syrian Kurdistan.

It’s understandable, to a degree: as one who also sympathizes with this seemingly left-libertarian project, which the author describes as a “spark of hope to many leftists in the West” – hope that is “not misplaced” – I too have been challenged by the fact that were it not for an extensive air campaign that the United States reluctantly carried out in Kobane, it might very well not exist. But while one can have doubts as to the ultimate wisdom of allying with a nation-state not known for its long-term friendships with left-wing radicals, one can’t deny that thus far that alliance has proved beneficial to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militias, the all-men YPG and all-women YPJ. One can also acknowledge that while it might sully the beneficiaries’ anti-imperialist credentials to accept U.S. aid, those beneficiaries would say that in a world full of bad options they chose the least-bad one available, preferring it to genocide.

The author boxed himself, however, when early in the piece he establishes that if a group is backed by the United States, it follows that it is more reactionary than the group it is being supported against. At this point in the article, the target is “the movement that was labeled revolutionary in Western media, including the Free Syrian Army.” Thus it is written:

“Given that the Ba’ath Party has historically found itself in conflict with both communists and feudal landowners, and the United States supported Ba’athists against communists, it would be safe to assume the any movement the US backs against the Ba’athists would be more akin to feudal landowners, with all of the political and economic baggage that class carries.”

What about those Kurds, though? No group in Syria has so benefited from U.S. imperialism; while the “Contras” of the Free Syrian Army have been forced to ration bullets, the PYD’s militias have suffered no such shortage, despite an embargo imposed by Iraq and Turkey. They are also only groups in Syria that are allowed to actually call-in U.S. air strikes. As Louis Proyect notes, were the FSA given such power the author would be “screaming bloody murder.” But the U.S. gives no such power to other groups in Syria: It has, in fact, bombed every other party involved in the Syrian conflict, from ISIS to Jabhat al-Nusra to a brigade aligned with the FSA – except, notably, the Syrian regime with which it has reportedly been coordinating its air strikes for the last year (the U.S. hasn’t even bombed the regime or any of its allied militias by “accident”).

When it comes to an imperialist power aiding the PYD, Higgins is “remarkably patient,” writes Proyect – amusingly so (Russia’s imperial intervention predictably goes unmentioned). It’s more than just patience, though: it’s revisionism.

Take the battle for Kobane, which was practically lost when the United States, aware of public relations, belatedly agreed to help the Kurds fight off the Islamic State. About this, the author writes: “The US, in addition to dropping bombs, dropped aid finding its way both into the hands of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the fighting unit of the PYD, as well as ISIS.” The inconvenient reality elided here is that, “in addition to dropping bombs” that proved vital in the liberation of Kobane, the US provided lots of aid that more than just meandered its way to the Kurds and ISIS alike. ISIS did indeed claim to have seized one airdrop of arms, sure, but there were multiple drops every day, for months, that were received by the intended recipient: the anti-imperialist Kurds (the drops would “greatly help,” said a spokesperson for the YPG at the time, “and we thank America for this support”). For the author to suggest parity is absurd – and, especially absurd for an anti-imperialist, diminishes the role imperialism has played in propping up a leftist project. The United States is not doing so because its president is the Marxist his conservative critics claim, but because it prefers the Kurds to ISIS the same way it preferred Ho Chi Minh to imperial Japan. Alliances of convenience may be less than ideal, Vietnam a lesson on the transient nature of an empire’s friendship, but even anti-imperialist militias must live in the world we have today. I too prefer it were it not so, but preferable to denial is acceptance of this reality, at least if we wish to ground our analysis – and proposed alternatives – in something approaching the truth.

Rather than acknowledge U.S. imperialism’s role in propping up what’s billed as the last best hope for the left in Syria, the author distorts reality further: it’s the Syrian regime, in his telling, that has made Rojava possible. Indeed, “The space for this revolutionary project was created in opposition to” the rest of the Syrian opposition. There’s some truth to that: early on, there were battles between the YPG/YPJ and other armed opposition groups who suspected the Kurds had nationalist aspirations, not just a desire for autonomy. But that revolutionary space was also created by that opposition: Were it not for the uprising against the Assad regime, that regime never would have made the tactical decision to withdraw from Syrian Kurdistan, whose population it previously repressed (why not focus on more pressing targets and leave Turkey with what is sees as a problem on its border?).

Notice, too, who the YPG thanked for saving Kobane: “the international coalition forces that have provided active support with airstrikes against ISIS,” as well as “Free Syrian Army groups” that continue to fight alongside it to this day. The Syrian regime, by contrast, came under both rhetorical and literal fire: As the Kurds were fighting ISIS, the “Baathist-fascist forces” of Bashar al-Assad – the YPG’s words – launched an attack on their purported friends, killing several militiamen.

You won’t read about that in Jacobin, nor will you find any mention of the fact that the Syrian regime, not its opposition – “moderate” and “jihadist” alike – is responsible for the vast majority of the violence in Syria (you also won’t find much commentary on Syria from any Syrians, who are treated the way The Nation treats Palestinians when it comes to the debate over Israel). One can debate the merits of U.S. policy, and one can certainly oppose U.S. intervention anywhere and everywhere, but when facts pose a challenge to one’s anti-imperialism, it is better to grapple with them, not downplay or omit them. It’s unfortunate that a revolutionary project’s best friend at the moment, however fleetingly, is an imperialist power whose only interest is using revolutionaries as cannon fodder against ISIS, but that reality should lead those of us in the pampered West to undergo a long overdue project of our own: How can we express meaningful solidarity with leftists abroad who are coming under fire from secular and religious fascists alike? A candlelight vigil wouldn’t have saved Kobane. What we shouldn’t do is ignore facts that run counter to our ideological prejudices in the service of neat, simplistic narratives that treat some “U.S.-backed” rebels as more equal than others.

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The criminalization of poverty

I didn’t used to see tents when I moved to Koreatown two years ago, but when the city of Los Angeles revealed that there’s been an 85 percent increase in people living in such makeshift shelters during that time I thought: Yup, I’ve seen it — first there was one, then there was three, then there were entire tent cities. That spurred me to write a story about the problem and the city’s approach to it, which — the occasionally liberal rhetoric of the mayor aside — can be summed up as: What if we just made it illegal to be that damn poor? Today The Intercept published that story. It is my personal opinion that you should read it.

Also, for Inter Press Service, I reviewed a new book, Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq. I’d read that too — the book and the review.

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The market finds a way to make looking for a job more terrible

The only thing that sucks more than having a job is not having but needing one — and as I note in my latest piece for The Baffler, there are more people looking for work than there is work to offer, a fact those with the power to hire and fire have exploited to make the job search an even more degrading process that is statistically more likely to entrench self-loathing than lead to gainful employment. Read the piece and maybe give me a job.

Oh, and for LAist I wrote about efforts to legalize street vendors in Los Angeles and critics who say taco trucks attract sex workers. Check that out.

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On the killing of Ezell Ford and the impotence of civilian review boards

The Los Angeles Police Commission said the two LAPD officers who in August 2015 shot and killed an unarmed, mentally man named Ezell Ford acted improperly — and I wrote about how that doesn’t mean a whole lot, unfortunately, given that the commission has no actual power to discipline anyone. Check it out at TakePart.

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