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Alienation, Despair and American Greatness

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Give me an adequate army, with power to provide it with more pay and better food than falls to the lot of the average man, and I will undertake, within 30 years, to make the majority of the population believe that two and two are three, that water freezes when it gets hot and boils when it gets cold, or any other nonsense that might seem to serve the interest of the state.""""""""""""""""""""" - Bertrand Russell

An epidemic of unhappiness is spreading across the planet, while capital absolutism is asserting its right to unfettered control of our lives.""""""""""""""""""""" - Franco "Bifo" Berardi"

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First there was Paris. Then Colorado Springs. Then San Bernadino. A great discussion was raised in the land over which of the killers were terrorists and which were just lunatics. Police and FBI frantically went through apartments, hard-drives and cellphones to find out who had radicalized whom. Well paid corporate TV anchors salivated as police cordoned off crime scenes and politicos huddled in secret situation rooms to get their stories straight so they could release an official story to an eager and fearful public. They no doubt kept many important details to themselves.

Beyond the radicalizing question, there isn't much interest why these people -- versus other people -- did what they did. Motivation comes down to: Who made them do it? The words alienation and despair are rarely seen, except maybe in the marginalized columns of the left. The problems of alienation and despair disappeared from the national discussion about the time Jimmy Carter's malaise was overwhelmed by Ronald Reagan's shining city on a hill and the rigors of 21st century "neoliberal" financial capitalism took the driver's seat in America.


Media covers focusing on America's murder/suicide problem
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The Right emphatically pointed at ISIS and the Muslim threat. Utilizing sophisticated social media skills, a monstrous, growing caliphate had declared war on America and was seducing people living among us to kill us. America needed to respond with unrestrained lethal force, so America could be great again. In cases like the Planned Parenthood killings and the Charleston killings, the Left pointed at rightwing media bullhorns like Bill O'Reilly for relentlessly demonizing Planned Parenthood and the Black Lives Matters movement. O'Reilly vociferously denied on-air that he had "radicalized" anyone; he was not responsible for armed lunatics. The National Rifle Association stood firm: Any controls on citizen access to military assault rifles was the work of the Devil.

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At last count, rightwing, domestic terror accounted for slightly more deaths than Islamic jihad terror; it was close enough that The New York Times called it a draw. Meanwhile, 200,000 Americans died on US highways, obesity grew, heroin slipped into the white, suburban community, our bridges were deteriorating, our regimented education system avoided teaching critical thinking skills like the plague and the weather kept getting stranger and stranger. A mixture of fear and a sense of the absurdity of it all made many Americans want to run screaming into the night.

Thanks to what officials called the "perplexing" quality of the San Bernadino case (it seemed a hybrid of Islamic- and workplace-terror), the polarizing issue of who is and who isn't a terrorist was finally put to rest. Officialdom designated a distinction between Islamic terrorism and domestic terrorism. But in the end, the discussion was moot, thanks to the roller-coaster carnival of the 2016 presidential campaign. The sitting Democratic president continued with bombing and a minimum of US troops on the ground to counter ISIS. He did seem reluctant to stir up World War Three. The most rabid Republican candidates, led by Donald Trump did not share this restraint. Trump wanted to "bomb the sh*t out of ISIS" and suggested the President was a fifth columnist working for Islam inside the White House. He cited FDR's Japanese internment camps as precedent for barring all Muslims from entering the country. Not to be outdone, Ted Cruz declared, "I want to carpet bomb ISIS." The last time the US did that was with B-52s over Laos, something all civilized humans agree was a war crime.

The food fight didn't stop smart, resourceful reporters like Lydia Wilson from traveling to Kirkuk in Iraq and, along with a retired US general named Doug Stone, actually interviewing a number of captured ISIS soldiers face-to-face. An article was published, as one might expect, in a left-leaning publication, The Nation. One 26-year-old ISIS fighter with a sixth-grade education and two kids to support told her he was fed up with war and ISIS. He had apparently participated in some killing, but still, he seemed more a pathetic individual trapped by evil circumstances than the bloody-fanged monster we've been led to envision. After the interview, the man was asked if he had anything he wanted to say. He told Wilson and Stone this: "The Americans came. They took away Saddam, but they also took away our security. I didn't like Saddam. We were starving then, but at least we didn't have war. When you came here, the civil war started."

"[This young man] fits the absolutely typical profile," General Stone told Wilson. "The average age of all the prisoners in Iraq when I was here was 27; they were married; they had two children; had got to sixth to eighth grade. He has exactly the same profile as 80 percent of the prisoners then " and his number-one complaint about the security and against all American forces was the exact same complaint from every single detainee."

This young father is a perfect example of human despair at the end of its rope in a thoroughly destroyed cultural space, in this case, the Saddam-friendly Sunni lands of Anbar Province in western Iraq.

Thomas Ricks wrote a book on the Iraq War in 2006 called Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. He published another book in 2009 called The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008. He ended the second book this way: "No matter how the US war in Iraq ends, it appears that today we may be only halfway through it. ... In other words, the events for which the Iraq War will be remembered probably have not yet happened."

It's now seven years later. As he campaigned he would do, President Obama pulled US troops out of Iraq. That's as it should be. But the people who lived there were left with a thoroughly battered living space, physically and culturally. They were now ruled by a Shiite government installed by our invasion, leaders who hated them and wanted vengeance on them. As Rick put it, halftime is over and we're now in the beginning of the second half of what was, of course, a totally unnecessary war-of-choice started by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

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By SUV, I traveled four times, 12-hours each time, across the barren expanse of Anbar Province. We stopped at truck stops and little shops in tiny villages along the way; I took the opportunity to communicated as best I could with as many people as I could. In January 2004, I was shooting video for a documentary film in Baghdad. I will never forget the strapping Iraqi man in his 40s who accompanied me as I shot in a bombed out university building. At one point, in a friendly, patronizing tone, he said, "John, you know all Iraqis will lie to you." The way he said it was like he was explaining gravity, as if he was saying, you Americans don't get it: Over the decades of colonial occupation, the years ruled by the gangster Saddam, the ravages of the Gulf War and the cruel embargo that followed, the 2003 "shock and awe" invasion and the imperial occupation, Iraqis have been crushed to the point decency and honesty is gone. All that counted was what you could get away with to survive. As I recall those days, I'm not shocked in the least that Anbar Province has been taken over by people consumed with psychopathic vengeance where the US is the enemy. The levels of despair we helped instill in a huge, desolate piece of real estate must be incredible.

"What the world ultimately thinks about us and what we think of ourselves," Ricks quotes US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker saying in 2008, "is going to be determined much more by what happens from now on than what's happened up to now."

Some Insightful Radical Thinking

I'm a devoted scourer of thrift shop book shelves. I love looking through the books that people have discarded. Much of it is pop trash, but there's always that gem or a handful of books that capture my interest for some reason. Thrift shops are the antithesis of fashion, so the books one finds there are often focused on dated ideas or stories.

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I'm a 68-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old kid. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and (more...)
 

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