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The Privatization of Repression

Blackwater’s Death Machine

by NORMAN POLLACK

Obama is excellent at multitasking in navigating the waters of international politics, seeking to construct a political-structural framework of American global hegemony, formally (for who knows the full extent of the forces standing behind him?) presiding over a Juggernaut of irresponsible power in which the US seemingly thwarted in one theater of operations then springs up in another. Obama the jumping jack, but with malice aforethought, ever moving forward through intervention, carefully-delineated war (at least that is the claim), regime change, drone assassination, CIA-JSOC joint-paramilitary operations, alliance systems to rationalize the internationalization of American power (as with NATO and “friends and allies”) often bilaterally arranged, affording joint-exercises and lucrative arms sales, and not least, the subject of this article, the use of PRIVATE ARMIES, which have an increasingly important role as occupation forces and for guarding US interests, facilities, and personnel worldwide.

By multitasking, I mean proving oneself at being adept in the service of ruling groups and the needs and objectives of the political economy, from establishing beachheads for business (commercial-financial penetration) to presenting a counterrevolutionary front onto the world on behalf of the security of US and global capitalism, wrapped in the protective shell of military omnipotence. This entails awareness of multiple pressure points, either to be worked with or destroyed, a geopolitical landscape itself forever in motion, so that, if not Russia, then China, if not China, then Iraq and Afghanistan, etc., etc., which is entirely befitting one who presides over US-defined processes of industrial and trade expansion within a world system unwilling to accept, because of its increasingly multipolar structure, American supervision. This still sporadic, but now more and more resolute, resistance to unconditional US supremacy in all that affects the world system, conforming in power-terms to the realities of structural change occurring over the last several decades, places emphasis on FORCE in maintaining its suzerainty. Diplomacy be damned (except as camouflaged in liberal rhetoric to cover the relentless application of power), humanitarianism now being the spearhead for intervention and the expansion of spheres of influence.

This is not to suggest Obama’s expertise in international politics and economics; he has a pedestrian mind (run-of-the-mill intelligence, impressionable when confronted by financial and military arcanum), nimble mental processes (except becoming congealed when his considerable defense-mechanisms go up), antennae out for what sells, personally ingratiates, or aligns with instruments of power, genial on the surface, harboring desires for recognition based on an imagined sense of hurt and deprivation which gives license for belligerence, power, cruelty in national and world affairs. Consider his engagement with drone assassination, the vaporization of fellow human beings thousands of miles away, or the impoverishment and growing underclass his actions support, again, fellow human beings, as policy further enriches the already very wealthy. His psychological attachment to power brings him closer to financial, military, and intelligence elites, leading to an aggressive role in the massive surveillance of the American people, contrariwise, the near-absolute secrecy of government, in which transparency per se is feared as a form of terrorism (witness the fulsome use of the Espionage Act against whistleblowers).

To know Obama is to understand better the relationship between the government and Blackwater, which is a particularly vicious form of private army, free-wheeling, trigger-happy, cloaked in patriotism, and demanding and receiving for itself complete immunity for the crimes it commits. These, however, are not crimes in ordinary parlance, because sanctioned by, and done in the name of, the government, which shares its ideology of force, righteousness, superiority. Mowing down the innocent, along with engaging in promiscuity on the government’s time, both revealed by investigators, are o.k., so long as counterterrorism can be a screen by which to hide behind. Under Obama’s umbrella, Blackwater was safe because deemed essential—and because there was a tinge of fear about going against it. When strength for questionable purposes is asked, one turns to the strongest, which follows an authoritarian mindset characteristic of the society.

Damage control is one area of his expertise bound to arise, given his record of war, drone assassination, regime change, and now, the use of private contractors, who are accorded (as are the military), through the status-of-forces agreements imposed where American intervention occurs, diplomatic immunity from punishment for the commission of crimes in the assigned country. Getting away with murder is both figurative and literal. A notorious case, in September 2007, occurred when Blackwater trucks entered a busy Baghdad traffic circle and, in a hurry and given prior immunity for their actions, simply cleared the way through spraying the area with machine-gun fire and killing 17 Iraqis. The “Ugly American” of the 1950s was Adonis compared with these mercenaries, themselves well-connected both with right-wing support in Congress and the Executive, and doing guard duty at foreign embassies as well as working with the CIA in conducting armed drone missions of assassination.

A private army, its usage is interrelated with the militarism-driven public policy that has shaped the confrontational posture toward Russia and China, and the broader context of counterrevolution where “Enemies” become defined and visited upon by all the majesty of military might. Proceed with impunity is the watchword for American forces, whether at an Iraqi traffic circle, a Pakistan or Yemen funeral procession (by definition bad guys because at the burial of the Bad Guy we just vaporized via a drone strike), or the numerous black-hole prisons around the globe recruited through rendition. Civilian or military, it makes little difference: impunity bears the imprimatur of Exceptionalism.

***

When Matt Apuzzo’s article in The Times appeared, “In a U.S. Court, Iraqis Accuse Blackwater of Killings in 2007,” (June 25), the readers in their Comments for the most part blamed Bush for the massacre yet, not the event so much as the cover-up, seeing no relation whatever to Obama and his administration for the subsequent fate of the perpetrators (nil) or participation in the cover-up. Obama, DOJ, Pentagon, even the media, a deafening silence, now broken, but Obama as always sheathed in protective armor. A century-and-a-third ago, ruling groups used Pinkertons to suppress the American labor movement (the Great Railroad Strikes of 1877). Now, ruling groups, better organized, more powerful, use a different private army, Blackwater, to class and systemic hegemony, a similar end, only on a broader basis, across the globe, directly reaching or affecting a wider constituency, all who stand in the way, or even seem to, of US foreign policy. The privatization of repression remains a constant in American history, whether as goons and scabs making up private armies or corporate executives in three-piece suits under marching orders to squeeze every bit of life from the masses through consumerism, indebtedness, and stagnant wages–a social system therefore whose motivating impulse is the differentiation of rich and poor, the former, more concentrated through time, the latter, more numerous.

Barrington Moore’s concept of legitimated violence, in Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, has resonance to our topic—the interrelatedness of actions and developments criminal in any meaningful sense yet falling inside and protected by the law as, if nothing else, the normalization of power, indeed, power as a law to itself, no questions asked, either by political leaders or most historians. Thus falling under his concept, for present purposes, would be a political economy making for the formation of an underclass of today at home and worldwide, and the gunning down of people at a Baghdad intersection, or for that matter, the Washington tricksters seeking to trap Putin and Russia into false moves justifying massive retaliation in the name of an international system they themselves are eroding if not destroying in the name of a higher law, yes, the “moral” utility of Exceptionalism. All of the foregoing come to mind as derivable from Moore’s classification of crimes which Authority in its prerogatives and power defines as noncrimes, erasing lines between the private and public spheres of life, just so long as the System has been served, refined, perpetuated.

Obama is the perfect dramatis personae in microcosm of one who thrives on a legal order to camouflage his illegal acts—which of course cannot be judged illegal because, as in massive surveillance he has a dummy court, the FISA Court, to back him up, and in drone assassination, the presumably authoritative memos of DOJ and the Office of Legal Counsel. So, too, Blackwater, with pick-and-choose justifications from the myriad operations of government and stretched-out interpretations of Congress. Obama did not invent the System, its practices, or its rationales, but neither did he qualify or oppose their workings. To blame Bush for being on the ground floor when Blackwater members exploded in Bagdhad, and stop there, begs the question of what Obama did or didn’t do for six going on seven years after as the CRIME festered in at least the eyes of the victims’ families and Iraqis in general, if not a world encouraged to forget and/or bought off to look the other way. Obama is USG in fact as well as in symbol, and, under his watch, there is a matter of accountability for repression in continuous effect, whatever its origins. One wonders how many other acts of legitimated violence occurred and still occur during his reign, by Blackwater, CIA-JSOC operations, or the use of embargoes to bring civilian populations to their knees?

***

Apuzzo writes, “The Nisour Square shooting is a signature point in the Iraq war, one that inflamed anti-American sentiment abroad and contributed to the impression that Americans were reckless and unaccountable. The Iraqi government wanted to prosecute the security contractors in Iraq, but the American government refused to allow it.” I must comment at the outset: not only was our stooge-Iraqi government incensed enough by the evident crime to want to prosecute, but USG, by the very terms of the intervention, forbade it. Of the latter point, civilian contractors, coming under the status-of-forces agreements or similar exonerative measures binding local authorities NOT to prosecute for crimes committed in their jurisdiction, are or should be considered war criminals (and the nation employing them, guilty of war crimes) every bit as much as if they were members of the armed forces. In fact, we see government prosecution a solemn farce, and perhaps the use of civilians a deliberate ploy to fend off international condemnation calling for a proper accounting of the nation itself.

The Bush administration in 2008 began a half-hearted effort carried out by DOJ: “When the Justice Department indicted five former Blackwater guards in 2008 and reached a plea deal with a sixth, prosecutors said it was a message that, whether in a war zone or not, nobody was above the law.” Not so, more like damage control because the offense was so flagrant that to do nothing was not an option. Apuzzo notes: “But the case has suffered repeated setbacks, frequently of the government’s own making. In Iraq, the delays contributed to the impression that Blackwater operated with impunity. Prosecutors ultimately dropped charges against one guard, citing a lack of evidence, and have gone to trial against the remaining four.” Yet, given the 17 deaths, the paucity and downgrading of the charges is nauseating, especially when the reporter observes: “For the most part, the horrors of the Nisour Square shooting are uncontested. Nobody disputes that a team of Blackwater guards, working for the State Department [under Hilary, I might add, the firm’s services continued], drove four armored trucks into a busy traffic circle and opened fire.” Of the four standing trial, three faced manslaughter charges, and the fourth, a murder charge.

Even there, the protracted nature of the trial, along with the multiplicity of witnesses brought over one at a time or in small numbers, created conditions which opened the way for inconsistency in testimony, chiefly turning on which of the five fired the first shot, by which to determine the murder charge. Under the circumstances, the defense had a field day gladly jumping into the confusion to discredit witnesses. Too, because the travel arrangements were courtesy of the FBI, I am mistrustful, having observed at first hand during Mississippi Freedom Summer their devotion to civil liberties and the rule of law: browbeat the complainant, not the perpetrator. Bush’s DOJ initiated the prosecution, yet without providing the substantive underpinnings, but six years later, the trickle of witnesses finally begins. My point, however, going back to civilian contractors and questionable court proceedings, is that privatization, in so wide a stretch of society, should not, as seems to happen, be a get-out-of-jail card. More basic still, why such puny charges, instead of handing over the defendants to the International Criminal Court?

The answer is self-explanatory: Obama’s rule-of-thumb, never admit wrongdoing, is similar in spirit and procedure to the Israelis, i.e., never prosecute one of your own, no matter how heinous the crime. For one, using live ammunition to shoot down children throwing stones, for the other, clearing intersections with machine-gun fire, either from impatience for traffic delay or cold-blooded enjoyment of shooting down civilians. It is difficult to determine who learns from whom, Americans learning from Israelis, or Israelis, from Americans. Occurrences of “collateral damage” are so numerous as not to draw attention, much less, if attention is drawn, to call for punishment, the victim’s alleged inferiority often assumed.

(These remarks may seem inappropriate and insensitive in light of the discovery of the bodies of the three Israeli youths who were murdered. I mourn their loss and grieve for their loved ones. But the larger picture does not change. Repression is a sickly force; one speculates that respect for and fair-treatment of the Palestinians would never have brought about the tragedies found on a daily basis. Like the deaths of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, the moral lessons of respect for human life and dignity have not been learned, and perhaps cannot be when the structure of society encourages violence and hatred. As if to underscore the tragedy of domination, cause and consequence of repression in the first place, we see the reprisal, the murder of a Palestinian youth burned alive as shown by forensic evidence, whose death I also mourn, and record here the words of Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian member of the Israeli Parliament, who contrasts the three-week search for the kidnappers and the actions to find Muhammad Abu Khdeir’s killer or killers: “It’s an ordinary message that the life of Jewish Israelis is much more valuable than the life of others, especially Palestinians. This is a double standard, both moral and political, and it’s part of the anger in the street here, about what the Israelis are doing to our lives.”)

On shooting down civilians in Nisour Square,this is the trial testimony of Sarhan Moniem, a traffic officer, who “held up two hands, showing how he pleaded with the American security contractors to stop.” Apuzzo continues: “’There was a lady. She was screaming and weeping about her son and asking for help,’ Mr. Moniem said. He showed the jurors how she had cradled her dead son’s head on her shoulder. ‘I asked her to open the door so I could help her. But she was paying attention only to her son.’”

Another witness, the first in the trial, Mohammed Kinani, “broke down last week [yes after nearly seven years from the time of the shooting, the trial has just begun in Washington, near the Capitol] as he talked about his 9-year-old son, Ali, who was shot in the head while riding in the back seat of the family car. Mr. Kinani sobbed so uncontrollably that Judge Royce C. Lambeth sent the jury out of the room.” The reporter adds, “The next day, one juror said she had been too haunted to sleep. The judge excused her from service.” Wouldst Obama be “too haunted to sleep,” for the crimes he has committed against humanity, and he, too, be “excused…from service” by the American people.
Finally, Majed Gharbawi, a 55-year-old commodity trader, testified, on the 24th, that “he was riding in a small truck with his friend Osama Abbas when the shooting started directly in front of them. Mr. Gharbawi tried to run away and was hit in the abdomen. As he slumped to the ground, he said, he saw another man who had been shot. ’He was screaming and praying to god, for Allah to save him from this calamity,’ Mr. Gharbawi testified. In Islam, he explained, it is customary for the dying to say a final prayer. ‘So I told him, let’s do that together.’”

Apuzzo concludes the witness’s testimony, a passage I would like to see tacked up in the room off the Situation Room, purported to be where Obama and his advisers look over the hit list for the next round of assassinations—the White House analogue to Blackwater practices in constructing a methodology of death: “As Mr. Gharbawi lay in the street, Mr. Abbas also tried to run. He did not make it far. ‘His body was shaking violently as the bullets were piercing him and hitting the sidewalk,’ Mr. Gharbawi said. He said the American security guards kept shooting at Mr. Abbas EVEN AFTER HE WAS ON THE GROUND, CLEARLY DEAD.” (caps., mine)

Who are the true psychopaths, the ones doing the shootings, those who hire them—in the name of the people—to do the shootings, the American people complicit in the enterprise of global hegemony—or all three, and the framework for legitimating war, intervention, murder, social and economic pillage, in our name?

My New York Times Comment on the Apuzzo article, same date, follows:

The shootings occurred in Sept. 2007. Why nearly seven years delay? Blackwater is pure American, a privatization of mercenaries, murder, and intervention. The State Dept. in all this time has done nothing and probably still keeps Blackwater on the payroll (under its new corporate name and logo). Is it any wonder the US is increasingly despised in the world? Private armies with license to kill, quite a testimony to American democracy.

With the FBI handling details, one can suppose a whitewash. Habeas corpus rights denied to detainees previews the US judicial system (as does the FISA Court), so how expect justice to be done? Clearing that intersection with machine guns was reported at the time as Blackwater impatience to get through a crowded area. Allowed for seven years to remain out of sight speaks volumes about the status of forces agreement, the cynicism of intervention, and yes, the cover-up of US criminal activity.

I’m sorry Moniem and fellow Iraqis participate in this farce. They are hoodwinked. There will be no justice, merely damage control. And what of countless other unjustified killings, which will not even see the semblance of prosecution? Blackwater on one hand, Obama, with his hit list and targeted assassination on the other, and in between, CIA-JSOC paramilitary operations geared to regime change, together constitute the package of Obama’s liberal humanitarianism, bringing democracy to the ignorant at gunpoint.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.