Blind Man with a Pistol


Back Bacon

Pandemics exert a particular hold on the social imagination. From as far back as Oedipus Rex, the plague reveals the fragility of the social bond, our fear and suspicion of the necessary connection that binds us. More recently, George Romero’s  Night of the Living Dead (1968) exploits this fear—expressed in racism, sexual gaze and state coercion—to deliver a powerful social commentary in the midst of the American civil rights movement. When what we call soceity admits strange and foreign company, we question the link that shackles us together. Zombies scare us not because they are different, but because they are so like us. As both Oedipus and Duane Jones discovered to their peril, when the enemy you seek to expel is indivisible from yourself, there is no way out. Aristotle called this katharsis; Romero called it terrifying.

And so the world finds itself gripped by another pandemic scare: swine flu joins avian flu, SARS and e coli as the latest member of a list that trails back beyond the Black Plague of London. At time of writing, the CBC website boasts no less than fourteen links to swine-flu-related stories. I have no knowledge or understanding of pandemic as a medical reality, and I would never minimize the over 150 confirmed deaths suffered in Mexican communities as a result of the disease. Moreover, I do not question Dr. David Butler-Jones’s assertion that Swine flu is likely to worsen in Canada. However, I do question the focus of the stories issuing from this media frenzy.

Despite the vast number of articles swirling about the pandemic scare, very few of them seem to be actually about the Mexican victims, or reflecting the grief shared by the affected communities. This is in stark distinction to the commiserating stories that followed the nearly 300 dead in the L’Aquila earthquake earlier this month, or the Australian bushfires that claimed more than 200 lives. Instead, we are assaulted with stories that tell us if our state borders are safe: Infected Scottish couple ‘doing OK’, With [US] Swine Flu Cases Rising, Borders are Tightening, and Canadian Health Officials Warn against travel to Mexico. Why are two slightly ill people from Falkirk earning more column inches than the devastated community that forms the epicentre of this global crisis?

A few people are trying to answer these questions. David Kirby at HuffPo draws links between Mexico’s factory farms and the illness:

As Philpott pointed out in his post, Mexican newspapers have been reporting for weeks that residents living near Granjas Carroll’s massive hog facility at La Gloria are falling ill with severe upper respiratory diseases. One five-year-old girl in the village just tested positive for swine flu – the bodies of two more children who died recently are being exhumed.

According to an April 5 article in La Jornada newspaper, “Clouds of flies emanate from the lagoons where Granjas Carroll discharges the fecal waste from its hog barns – as well as air pollution that has already caused an epidemic of respiratory infections in the town.”

More than 400 people had already been treated for respiratory infections, and more than 60 percent of the town’s 3,000 residents had reported getting sick, the paper said. State officials disputed that claim, and said the illnesses were caused by cold weather and dust in the air.

The Guardian forwards a similar possibility, targeting the world’s largest pig-meat producer, Smithfield:

Smithfield, which is led by pork baron Joseph W Luter III, has previously been fined for environmental damage in the US. In October 2000 the supreme court upheld a $12.6m (£8.6m) fine levied by the US environmental protection agency which found that the company had violated its pollution permits in the Pagan River in Virginia which runs towards Chesapeake Bay. The company faced accusations that faecal and other bodily waste from slaughtered pigs had been dumped directly into the river since the 1970s .

The outbreak of respiratory illness in the area of the Granjas Carroll plant was first detected at the beginning of this month by Veratect, a company based in Washington state which monitors the spread of disease and pandemics around the world for corporate clients.

On 6 April it reported local officials had declared a health alert. According to its dispatch: “Sources characterised the event as a ‘strange’ outbreak of acute respiratory infection, which led to pneumonia in some paediatric cases. Health officials recorded 400 cases that sought medical treatment in the last week in La Gloria, which has a population of 3,000; officials indicated that 60% of the town’s population, approximately 1,800 cases, has been affected.”

It’s a connection that appears, to the non-medical eye at least, as blindingly obvious. Kettle together shit, swine, flies and workers close enough for long enough, and the result will be nasty. So now that an American corporation, driven by Western appetite for cheap pork loin has created what the chairman of the state legislature’s Committee on the Environment, Marco Antonio Núñez López, called ‘focos rojos‘ (translated by Kirby as ‘breeding grounds’ or ‘hot spots’) for a disease spreading to Canada, the United States and abroad, our response is to circle the wagons, tighten our borders, ostracize and  incriminate Mexico. A familiar narrative to say the least.

In a final bit of irony, Canada has tightened screening procedure for Mexican seasonal workers coming up during the summer to fill Canada’s casual labour void. There are no plans yet to bar workers, 15 000 of whom work on fruit, vegetable and dairy farms throughout the summer every year. So now that our sociopathic food industry and insatiable consumerism has created a diseased cesspool which our liberal sensibilities forbid us from implementing on our doorstep, relegated  instead to the conveniently inconspicuous and less ‘civilized’ Latin America, we forbid the casual labourers we desperately need from working in our ‘enlightened’ agriculture industry; thereby, in all likelihood, encouraging them to take up work in the more unsafe and unhygienic environment of Mexico. Like Oedipus, we keep trying to find the culprit behind the crime but all the evidence repeatedly, and quite awkwardly, points back at us. And, like Duane Jones in Romero’s Living Dead, we might survive the onslaught of pandemic only to be thwarted by our own incompetent, shortsighted and paranoid state.

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Police on my Back

If you are a British citizen, you should be furious. The severe and brazen violence exercised by the London Metropolitan police upon its citizens during and after the G20 protests is the direct result of unbridled and rampant expansion of executive and coercive powers of the British state. The cream of the crop such expansion has sown is the alarming murder of Ian Tomlinson, a non-protestor who was batonned while walking away from police with his hands in his pockets. If you are a person of colour in Britian, this observation probably comes as no surprise. But the difference now is that the thugs responsible have been caught on tape. Indeed, one of the most disturbing revelations to come out of the profuse video evidence is that when  a police officer backhanded Nicola Fisher at a vigil for Tomlinson’s death, she remonstrated “Do you realise there are three film crews filming you?”  The police officer, who had his badge number obscured so as to evade identification, responded by swinging a baton at her knees.

There is no end to the outrage these incidents should effect. The 2005 murder by police of Charles De Menezes and the recent inquest revealed police tactics: lie, obfuscate and impede justice until the evidence is so indisputable that backpedalling becomes unavoidable. The six officers responsible remain on the force. It appears that this strategy has become standard policy. Police announced the ‘death’ more than three hours after it occured, with an additional insidious claim that protestors impeded health care workers from accessing Tomlinson. Although the IPCC knew that Tomlinson had had contact with the police, they did not inform Tomlinson’s family. An inquiry was not launched until the Guardian published a video showing Tomlinson walking away from officers with his hands in his pockets, severely beaten to the ground in an unprovoked attack by London’s finest. An initial pathologist report, also delayed, conducted by Dr Freddy Patel who, it was later revealed, was twice reprimanded for dubious ethical behaviour, concluded Tomlinson died of a ‘heart-attack’. A second postmortem discovered Tomlinson died instead of internal bleeding. There should only be one question echoing through Scotland Yard and the British public right now:  How is this not murder?

Britain is a world leader in CCTV cameras, keeping a policing and surveillant eye on its public. It has baselessly and dangerously expanded the maximum time police can detain a terror suspect, first to 28 days in 2005 (after Tony Blair requested a 90-day period), then briefly to 42 days in 2008 before it was defeated after public and opposition party outcry. The next longest detention period by a Western democracy is Australia with 12. The list goes on: national ID cards, DNA databases and municipal politicians who have access to police surveillance to spy on innocent civilians and local political rivals. The unrelenting result of these coercive policies is a police force that has come to conceive of its executive power as inviolate, boundless and absolute.

Big Brother is not only the most popular show on British television, it is the archetype by which the state models its public policy. Now that Britain has seen the fruits of these oppressive labours, it is time to take them back. Of course, the task is much more difficult now that a culture of surveillance and coercion is firmly established, but the British public has seen its closed-circuit image and it does not like what it sees. It is important now more than ever to honour the deaths of De Menezes and Tomlinson by reclaiming our right to public autonomy and show these thugs the door.



The Mote in our Conscience

US President Barack Obama has released classified memos that reveal administrative approval of waterboarding and sleep deprivation, among other tactics, in the interrogation of terror suspects by the CIA. The Obama administration has rightfully denounced such crimes as torture. I don’t know all the details about American and Canadian participation and complicity in the torture of terror suspects, but I know someone who does. For those details, read skdadl at pogge.

But this post is not about the horror we feel once we realize the inhumanity our governments have inflicted in our names—such a reaction should be quick and visceral. Besides, we’ve known about these crimes for some time. What is alarming about the memos is the legal sleight-of-hand they effect to render torture lawful. And, equally alarming, is Obama’s insistence that:

In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carrying out their duties relying in good faith upon the legal advice from the department of justice that they will not be subject to prosecution.

We’ve heard this before, of course. CIA agents who forced terror suspects to believe they were drowning, who exploited deep-seated phobias to glean unreliable information, and who caused such untold mental and physical duress to enemies of the state that they are now immune to prosecution, overrode any ethical qualms they may or may not have held simply by surrendering to the steely rule of law. Adolf Eichmann made a similar appeal in his war crimes tribunal in front of the Supreme Court of Israel:

It was my misfortune to become entangled in these atrocities. But these misdeeds did not happen according to my wishes. It was not my wish to slay people. The guilt for the mass murder is solely that of the political leaders… I would stress that I am guilty of having been obedient, having subordinated myself to my official duties and the obligations of war service and my oath of allegiance and my oath of office, and in addition, once the war started, there was also martial law….

I accuse the leaders of abusing my obedience. At that time obedience was demanded, just as in the future it will also be demanded of the subordinate. Obedience is commended as a virtue. May I therefore ask that consideration be given to the fact that I obeyed, and not whom I obeyed.

It is understandable for Eichmann to make this plea: he was fighting for his life. It is less forgiveable for Obama to do so. Essentially, Obama is condoning that actors of the state abandon their own sense of judgement for another, as if the law is a cold, literal thing, handed down to us by mystics and soothsayers who conjure truth out of an impenatrable lexicon we cannot hope to understand. Is not asking for ‘good faith’ in the ‘legal advice’ of experts not an act of theology?

There’s another man who justified his warmongering with cold literalism. When the Archbishop of Cantebury advises Prince Hal, now King Henry, to invade France based on a specious and tortuous claim to the throne (which, incidentally, has something to do with the fact that Hal’s great-great grandmother was a daughter of the King of France, and hence under English law, but not French law, Hal’s claim has legs) in Shakespeare’s Henry V, he equivocates until Cantebury assures him that if his logic is not correct, ‘The sin upon my head, dread sovereign!’  Only once he can abrogate responsibility under the guise of faith (in both literal law and in his religious advisors) will he exercise his ambition in a logic that confounds readers and audience members to this day.

Shakespeare may well support Hal and earnestly attempt to legitimize the morality of a highly questionable invasion, but his concept of the law is clear. When Hal camouflauges his royalty and infiltrates his army’s camp before the battle of Agincourt, he meets two soldiers who are troubled by the legitimacy of their actions, but take solace, like Eichmann, in obedience:

we know enough, if we know we are the King’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us.

This line would appear to suffice for Eichmann, and indeed, for Obama. But not, I think, for the King. He does not agree:

The King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death, when they purpose their services…Every subject’s duty is the King’s; but every subject’s soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience.

The law, then, is dialectic: it is in the service of society and of ourselves. The King himself says no less in his famous exhortation at Agincourt, the climax of the play and articulation of the play’s conception of obedience and law:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;

The equalities and parallels drawn between the gentlest and vilest of our society justifies the King’s claims on his men: while the King might be culpable of reckless warmongering, the cohesion of this relationship never falters. Only a just cause validates the relationship. Justice issues from solidarity and trust. It is oceanic, and total: resolute, not absolute.

Such a relationship cannot be said to exist under Eichmann or under George W. Bush. Their ruling impeteus is clear: these are the facts, and you shall obey. Can the CIA agents who practiced waterboarding on terror suspects say that every mote has been washed out of his conscience?  Can Obama? By absolving these actors on the basis of their obedience to faulty logic and mystifying legal machinations, Obama has done nothing to restore public and international trust to a diseased system. To revitalize the law, the United States needs to resituate on principles of solidarity, communion and individual culpability. At times, it seems the law is as fragile as it is robust. Those who have committed these crimes need to face justice and those who can effect as much need to stop shielding them with the law.