Tomdispatch – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 27 Sep 2023 01:26:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 From Education to Incarceration Wed, 27 Sep 2023 04:02:38 +0000 By Tamar Sarai | –

( ) – Not long after moving to Topeka, Kansas, in the early 1980s, community organizer Curtis Pitts learned about a hidden slice of that city’s history that would come to shape his life’s work over the next four decades. He was introduced to the Kansas Technical Institute, or KTI, a Black vocational college that had prospered throughout the early twentieth century, only to close in the mid-1950s.

Founded in 1895, KTI enjoyed the distinction of being the second Black college established west of the Mississippi. Built in part by its own students, the school became a self-sustaining campus, training them in agriculture, nursing, printing, tailoring, and theology, among other subjects. The story of KTI almost immediately captured Pitts’s attention, both because of its grandeur at the time and the ways its absence had impacted the city.

“Thinking that this was the Brown v. the Board of Education city, this should be just like Atlanta with the Black community prospering,” Pitts told me, recalling his early observations of Topeka. “Once I found out that the school closed, you can see a direct correlation to the demise of Black businesses and families and communities because it was a hub and many of the business owners had learned their trade from the school.”

The benefits — both tangible and intangible — of any school, particularly one designed with Black students in mind, compelled Pitts not just to educate himself in the history of KTI but also, in the end, to try to reopen it, ushering in a new twenty-first-century version of the school. If its closure was sobering, its later transformation should have been confounding.

The shock of that change was captured in the moment, more than 40 years ago, when a friend first told Pitts about the school. “At that time, we were standing in his front yard and he kept looking across the street and he started talking about the college and why he came [to Topeka],” said Pitts. “I’m trying to figure out which college he was talking about because all I could see was a prison.”

Retaliation for Brown v. Board of Education?

KTI’s role in contributing to the rise of local business owners speaks to the importance of vocational training for young Black students nationwide at the time. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such training was the underpinning of many Black secondary schools and colleges. Most of them focused on specific trades with the goal not just of preparing their students for decent, steady work but also indoctrinating them with values like industriousness, efficiency, and self-reliance.

Perhaps the best-known and most influential leader of that pedagogical approach was Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He crafted its curriculum in a way that married vocational trades to academic study and famously instructed Blacks to “cast down their bucket where they are” and acquire the skills needed to take care of themselves.

Though a controversial stance at the time, Washington’s invitation encapsulated the mission of Tuskegee and came to serve as a model for other Black vocational schools, including KTI. In fact, the school’s founders, Lizzie Riddick and Edward Stephens, would successfully enlist the support of Washington when establishing KTI and former Tuskegee professors and directors would go on to hold prominent positions there. As only the second historically Black college established west of the Mississippi River, the Topeka-based school would come to be known locally as “the Tuskegee of the West.”

KTI’s closure in 1955, while unexpected for its students and alumni, would prove part of a wave of similar shutdowns in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision that ruled segregation unconstitutional. But while closings like that of the Manual Training and Industrial School in New Jersey were explicitly tied to that ruling, the cause of KTI’s remains murkier. Formally, state legislators shuttered the institution because Kansas already had another technical institute providing similar training, but Pitts wonders whether it wasn’t actually a form of local white retaliation for the Brown ruling.

What’s clear is that, by 1961, the state had transferred control of the former campus to the Department of Corrections and, by 2001, the space would, grimly enough, become home to Kansas’s first and only women’s prison.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline

KTI’s last class graduated more than half a century ago. Still, Pitts finds that some Black Topekans he speaks to about it have distant, often unexpected, ties to it.

“At this stage, you’re dealing with a lot more of ‘my dad or grandpa went there,’” said Pitts. “But most people I have to tell what it was. They’re going ‘Wow, I didn’t know that was there’ or ‘I was in prison there and I never knew that.’”

Barely five years after KTI’s closure, the Kansas legislature authorized the director of penal institutions to oversee the conversion of the campus into a center performing evaluations on individuals sentenced to the Kansas state penitentiary. Work crews of men incarcerated at the local penitentiary were hired to help renovate the school campus. In 1990, that center, combined with three other correctional institutions, would become the Topeka Correctional Facility and, in 2001, would transition from co-ed to all-female.

Still, even if a new generation of Topekans largely grew up without knowledge of the school’s existence, remnants of it are still there in plain sight, scattered across the prison grounds. Pitts, for instance, recalls giving a presentation at the facility while it was still a co-ed prison and stumbling across a school bench dedicated to a KTI sorority.

In its devolution, alumni and admirers like Pitts have pointed out how the site’s transformation brings to mind the school-to-prison pipeline. Consider that an effective metaphor, tying the story of the Kansas Technical Institute’s devolution to a concept the public is familiar with, while also expanding its potential meaning. Education, racial justice, and criminal legal reform advocates have used the term as a shorthand way to describe how young people — often Black students — are criminalized in school in ways that directly funnel them into the carceral system.

Instead of serving as spaces of opportunity, intellectual growth, and belonging, some schools have become all too literal conduits into the prison system and increasingly are even designed to look ever more like carceral facilities. But the reshaping of KTI’s campus into an actual prison offers both a metaphor for and a perspective on that pipeline and what it means when, over time, whole populations are functionally criminalized and state investment shifts from educational training to incarceration.

While, as an image, the school-to-prison pipeline typically focuses attention on the fate of individual students as they are punished with zero-tolerance disciplinary policies and the like, the story of KTI focuses on a larger picture: the movement of funds, priorities, and investment from a successful school to the incarceration of Kansans of color and, most recently, Kansan women of color.

Over the past three decades, the incarceration of women has exploded nationwide, growing at twice the pace of male imprisonment, even if all too little attention has been paid to the phenomenon. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the United States is among the top female incarcerators in the world with 172,700 women and girls living in some form of correctional confinement. While 72,000 of them are indeed detained in state prisons like the Topeka Correctional Facility, women are disproportionately incarcerated in local jails, which creates a unique set of harmful consequences that those held in state or federal prisons are less likely to contend with.

As a start, local jails provide even worse healthcare and fewer kinds of programming that might connect the imprisoned to academic or job training which might, in turn, reduce their risk of recidivism. In addition, communication with the outside world — friends, family, and loved ones — is often more difficult in jails where a phone call may be at least three times as expensive as calls from prison and where receiving mail, even postcards, is sometimes prohibited. Given that 80% of women in jails are mothers and often the primary caretakers for their families, the ripple effect beyond the walls is profound.

And yet even state prisons like Topeka Correctional offer their own versions of such devastation. For one thing, the sexual violence that pervades incarcerated women’s lives in prisons (as well as jails nationwide) is all too obvious at Topeka Correctional. In 2009, the Topeka Capital-Journal exposed a “complex black market” of contraband and bribes as well as a sex trade that women incarcerated at the facility were coerced into participating in.

Still, the state’s incarcerated women’s population continues to balloon. From 2000 to 2018 it rose by 60% — a dramatic increase, especially compared to the 14% increase in the men’s population in those years. No wonder, then, that, as the state’s sole women’s prison, Topeka Correctional has faced challenges with overcrowding in recent years that have only led to a further deterioration in living conditions and less access to crucial programming.

In 2019, 77% of the women who entered prison in Kansas did so as a result of a probation or parole violation, compared to 65% of men. The Kansas Sentencing Commission argued that this rise in recidivism among women can be attributed in large part to a 2013 law that “reformed” probation across the state. In actuality, it stripped judges of the possibility of using personal discretion when sanctioning individuals who violated probation or parole. Instead, it required that they stick to a prescribed flowchart of punishments that ranged from a couple of days in jail to the full length of their original sentences. Judges could no longer make exceptions or take into account any unique factors in prisoners’ lives that might have caused them to breach probation or parole requirements in the first place.

In a 2020 article, George Ebo Browne, a senior research analyst at the Kansas Sentencing Commission, noted that the law “changed practice for everyone. But how it was applied on the bench greatly impacted women.”

A Sense of Healing

Questions about the Kansas Technical Institute have plagued Curtis Pitts since the moment he first learned about it. Who really owned the land the school had been built on? Why did it actually close? Who ceded control of it to the Department of Corrections? One day, while sifting through the Shawnee County Office of the Register of Deeds, he finally located the deed to KTI and made a discovery that would startle local historians and provide new fuel for his mission to reopen the school.

A corporation warranty deed for it dated November 1910 stated that “the said property lands and appropriation should be perpetually used exclusively and solely for the industrial and educational training and development of Negro youth.” In essence, whether the school existed or not, the state was — or at least should have been — bound to continue using the land for the teaching and training of Black youth.

“Whoever wrote that document,” Pitts told me, “they knew, at the time, that Black people had no recourse and no ability to fight, but they knew that there would come a time when their children (and people who were concerned for their children of all races) would be able to stand up and fight and find this document. So, when I found that document it shocked me.”

Pitts took it to lawyers who affirmed its validity, helping advance his plans to launch the East Topeka Learning Center, a new post-secondary education facility, as KTI’s legacy. In 2018, Kansas lawmakers finally incorporated his proposal into the development of Washburn Tech East, a training facility for adults specializing in healthcare, construction, and commercial truck driving.

Despite that success, Pitts still feels that KTI itself should be reopened, describing the school as an heirloom that has yet to be returned to its rightful owner: the city’s Black community of the past, present, and future.

Pitts says that, while he’s received little pushback from legislators on his efforts, there has been a great deal of silence. Still, he insists, it’s essential not to be deterred or controlled by the whims of lawmakers and that establishing such a school independently through community efforts would be a demonstration in self-sufficiency.

“This is my philosophy,” he said, “with which I’m pressing everybody: you don’t wait for them to define the success or failure of your community. We must go through the process through the regents and educational-approving and ability-granting entities to open those schools ourselves. That’s what our children are waiting to see. They want to see us make a commitment to their future.”

Pitts notes that while there’s a clear connection between KTI’s success, the way it went down, and its conversion into a prison, the movement to reopen the school still seems strangely siloed from those focused more squarely on criminal justice reform and decarceration. If KTI were to reopen, it should be with a full reckoning of its history, lest the past be repeated yet again.

“That beautiful institution that our ancestors built with their own hands is sitting out there as a prison,” Pitts told me. “I understand why the state made that $300 million investment because it’s the only women’s prison in the state of Kansas, but there are other things that we could do that would allow us to create a sense of healing and curing on this issue.”

Every space and piece of infrastructure in our world, no matter how we engage with it — a converted building, an abandoned plot of land, a defunct railway, a closed school — has its own past. And sometimes the way it’s evolved, or devolved, illuminates something so much larger than what just the physical borders of that space can hold. In Pitts’s case, the history of the Kansas Technical Institute is just the beginning of a tale that led to Topeka Correctional, the school-to-prison pipeline, a community’s loss, and a distinctly unnerving world.


The Republican Party has a White Nationalism Problem that Isn’t Going Away Tue, 19 Sep 2023 04:02:43 +0000
( – In 2020, The Daily Show ran a segment in which statements by Republican leaders, including Donald Trump, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), and various Fox News personalities were juxtaposed with those made by Ku Klux Klan leaders like former Grand Wizard David Duke and former Imperial Wizard Bill Wilkerson. Fired Fox News commentator Tucker Carson, for instance, screeches manically that, because of immigration, “eventually there will be no more native-born Americans.” Immediately following that comment comes former Grand Wizard Duke saying, “We’ve got to start protecting our race.”

Donald Trump is then shown at a rally (with several Black people behind him wearing “Blacks for Trump” T-shirts) saying about Covid treatments, “If you’re white, you have to go to the back of the line. Discriminating against white people!” Again, there’s a cut to Duke stating, “There is racial discrimination going on right now in this country against massive numbers of white Americans.”

All too sadly, it didn’t take much effort then, nor would it now, to demonstrate that the racist “great replacement theory” that contends white Americans are being radically displaced by immigrants underlies an ever-fiercer defense of so-called Christian nationalist identity. And in our time, that defense has been essential to the rise of what has become the Trumpublican Party and the fierce growth of white racism that’s gone with it.

That Daily Show segment ended with the ultimate irony of Ted Cruz claiming that “the Democrats are the party of the Ku Klux Klan.”

No surprise there. Despite the all-too-obvious convergence of the perspectives of the Republican far right and the white supremacists of the Klan, as well as other avowed racists, Republican party leaders continue to vehemently deny any identification with the KKK or its views. In the process, they regularly issue obligatory statements rejecting bigotry, racism, and anti-semitism, while passionately disavowing Duke and others like him — all disingenuous and empty gestures of the first order.

Recent Republican behavior paints a very different picture. Earlier this year, for instance, Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) got thoroughly twisted in knots trying to defend his statement that “my opinion of a white nationalist, if somebody wants to call them a white nationalist, to me, is an American.” Eventually, he had little choice but to (largely) retreat from that stance — at least officially.

Typically though, whatever they may claim, Representatives Greene and Paul Gosar (R-AZ) had no problem hanging out with racists and neo-Nazis — until, at least, they got caught doing so. In February 2022, they both spoke at the America First Political Action Conference that brought together Islamophobes, hardline nativists, and others on the far right. The gathering was organized by prominent white nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes.

Yeah, the very same Fuentes who would have dinner with Donald Trump and Kanye “Ye” West at Mar-a-Lago that November.

Like Trump after that feast, when busted, Greene stated, “I do not know Nick Fuentes. I have never heard him speak. I have never seen a video. I do not know what his views are, so I am not aligned with anything that is controversial.” Despite Trump’s dubious assertation that he didn’t know Fuentes either, he certainly knew his old pal Ye and the controversies generated by a number of his antisemitic statements.

Endorsed by Duke

In 2021, it was Gosar and Greene along with Representatives Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Louie Gohmert (R-TX) who attempted to launch an America First Caucus that would champion “uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.” A secret paper, uncovered by Punchbowl News, discussed the forming of that caucus and the rationale behind it (addressing the supposed threat of “mass immigration” to “the long-term existential future of America as a unique country with a unique culture and a unique identity”). No need even to say “white,” of course. After the document was revealed and some Republican leaders criticized the initiative, all parties involved backed down (at least in public).

Time after time, key Republican figures have leaned into the ethos and ideological aims of white nationalism. It’s no wonder that America’s racists, including the KKK, have fallen in love with the modern Trumpublican version of the Republican Party. Once upon a time, of course, and for decades thereafter, the Klan was deeply linked to the southern wing of the Democratic Party — the Dixiecrats, as they were then known — but began to switch to the GOP as presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and then presidents Richard Nixon (with his infamous “southern strategy”) and Ronald Reagan exploited white feelings of resentment towards the Civil Rights Movement and the national Democratic Party’s support for racial equality.

In a research paper published by the American Sociological Review, David Cunningham, Justin Farrell, and Rory McVeigh argue that the Klan played a small but meaningful role in the transition of the Democratic South from blue to red. In a number of areas, there was a correlation between the rise of Klan activity and the southern shift to the Republican Party.

It should be noted that, from 1989 to 1992, David Duke even served as a Republican in the Louisiana state legislature. Like most white southerners then, he had been a registered Democrat until, in the late 1980s, he joined a regional shift to the GOP. National party leaders did denounce Duke, but local Republicans were far more ambiguous in their dealings with him. He also ran for the U.S. Senate as a Republican and for president in the 1988 campaign, first on the Democratic and then the Populist Party line. That year, he formally switched to the Republican Party, clearly showing which party at any moment best reflected his white nationalist ideology.

The day after Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president in 2016, Duke announced a run for the Senate in Louisiana, saying, “I believe my time has come. The people of this country, the patriotic, decent, God-fearing people of this country are now right with me.” He promptly also backed Trump, claiming that voting for anyone but him for president would be “treason to your heritage.” And Trump would prove to be in no rush to disavow him (though, in the end, he finally did).

Duke’s time, of course, hadn’t come and he got few votes. Still, more recently, the Klan and the GOP got new life when Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy thought it a good idea to liken African American Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Black scholar Ibram Kendi to what he called “the modern grand wizards of the modern KKK.” Klan leaders, he added, would be “proud” of her. He claimed that all he wanted to do was “provoke an open and honest discussion in this country,” presumably about race, a subject in which he had previously never shown the slightest interest.

Ramaswamy is Hindu and of Indian background. His color and his faith put him at odds with the hardcore evangelicals and white nationalists of the GOP base who have supported Trump. He has tried to argue, aware of that constituency’s prejudices, that he also adheres to Christian values and believes in Jesus.

He now claims that he’s personally never met a white supremacist and that racism in the United States mainly comes from the political left. Like other conservatives, he contends that racism is an individual flaw, rather than systemic, structural, and institutional. Despite a plethora of public rallies by avowed racists, a horrifying series of racist-driven mass murders, and a Homeland Security Department report that white supremacist extremists “will remain the most persistent and lethal threat to the Homeland,” Ramaswamy dismisses the danger of white supremacy as a kind of myth. As he put it, “I’m sure the boogeyman white supremacist exists somewhere in America. I’ve just never met him. Never seen one, never met one in my life, right? Maybe I’ll meet a unicorn sooner. And maybe those exist, too.”

Sorry, Vivek. For the Black people who were gunned down in Charleston, South Carolina, Buffalo, New York, and Jacksonville, Florida; the Jews murdered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Latinos slaughtered in El Paso, Texas, white supremacy is no joke.

While being roundly criticized by Democrats and civil rights leaders, Ramaswamy mostly received crickets from fellow Republicans. In interviews, no one ever seems to have asked him about how his pledge to support Donald Trump, should the latter become the Republican presidential nominee, puts him in the position of offering his stamp of approval to a candidate who was actually endorsed by Duke (twice!).

In 2016, Duke infamously announced his fierce support for just one presidential candidate — Donald Trump, of course. In a CNN interview with Jake Tapper on February 28, 2016, Trump initially pretended, all too unconvincingly, that he had never heard of him. (“I don’t know anything about David Duke.”) The next day, after coming under fire, he claimed that he had been wearing “a very bad earpiece” and had misheard the exchange. He then stated, “I disavowed David Duke.”

Trump knew just who Duke was, having discussed him in other interviews in previous years. As early as 1991, he told CNN’s Larry King that support for Duke’s run for governor of Louisiana was “an angry vote,” even if he then failed to address the racism at the heart of Duke’s campaign. In 2000, he did call Duke “a bigot, a racist” on NBC. At the time, Trump was flirting with running for president on the ticket of the Reform Party but blanched when he decided it was too extremist for him to be successful. He clearly grasped that it was in his political interest to distance himself from Duke’s toxicity, but he’s never been aggressively challenged to explain why Duke would have endorsed him in the first place.

“Some Very Fine People on Both Sides”

In 2017, Duke was one of the star attendees of that infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that brought together hundreds of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, antisemites, and far-right extremists from around the nation. The gathering, which turned violent, leading to the murder of protester Heather Heyer and injuries to many others, was initially called to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Trump also opposed that statue’s removal. After Heyer’s murder by a white nationalist in a car, he was forced to make a statement in which he voiced distinctly contradictory views, both condemning and praising the extremists. The president famously denounced the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides” and added that “you also had some very fine people on both sides.” By creating such a false equivalency, he clearly meant to assuage those in his base who also didn’t want monuments and memorials to Confederates removed.

Duke was thrilled by Trump’s initial statements. He said that the president “was the only person in the entirety of the U.S. government who pointed out that all the fault was not with the people who came there to defend the Robert E. Lee statue, and those who came to defend the right and heritage of white people.”

Duke also endorsed Trump in 2020 (and will likely do so in 2024). Perhaps predicting Trump’s future fallout with Vice President Mike Pence, and seeing Tucker Carlson for who he truly is, he tweeted, “Trump & Tucker is the only way to stop the commie Bolsheviks! It is the only path to beat them! #TrumpTucker2020.”

Duke did not make a mistake. He took in Trump’s attacks on immigrants (of color) and his view that whites are victimized by racism. He undoubtedly felt all too comfortable with the president’s suggestions that Black-led cities are dirty and dangerous places. While Republicans might dance around or denounce the very idea that they were in any way linked to white supremacists, no less the Klan itself, those groups are all too clear on where they stand in relation to the two parties.

Unfortunately for Trump, the party’s Klan troubles go further than just a rhetorical convergence. In August 2023, special counsel Jack Smith charged Trump with four counts related to the January 6th insurrection under a series of laws written during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era — specifically, Section 241 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, which was originally adopted as part of the 1870 Enforcement Act to combat the Klan and other white terrorist organizations. Those laws were put in place to protect the voting rights and civil rights of newly free African Americans including, as Reuters reporter Hassan Kanu noted, “the right to have one’s vote counted,” the very right that Trump and his criminal enterprise sought to deny.

In the end, the KKK did not choose to support Donald Trump because he was a Republican but because they agreed with the ideas that he (and other far-right Republicans) spout. It is finally time to face the rise in the twenty-first century of a new form of white nationalism and its alignment with many leaders of the Republican Party, including Trump.


Young Montanans are fighting Climate Change in Court for all our Sakes Fri, 15 Sep 2023 04:06:17 +0000 By Stan Cox | –

( ) – The wording in Article IX, Section 1, of Montana’s constitution couldn’t be clearer: “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” Accordingly, in April, a district court judge in Yellowstone County voided a permit for a natural-gas-fired power plant under construction there. Over its lifetime, it would have released an estimated 23 million tons of planet-roasting carbon dioxide and that, ruled the judge, was incompatible with a “clean and healthful environment” in Montana or, for that matter, anywhere else.

Within a week, the state legislature had voted to reinforce a 2011 law barring the consideration of climate change in policymaking and so allowing the construction of the power plant to resume. But that wasn’t the end of the matter. Last month, the lawmakers were slapped down a second time when another district judge ruled in favor of a group of 16 youthful Montanans in a suit filed in 2020 seeking to strike down that very 2011 anti-climate legislation.

In her ruling, Judge Kathy Seeley wrote, “Montana’s climate, environment, and natural resources are unconstitutionally degraded and depleted due to the current atmospheric concentration of [greenhouse gases] and climate change.” She added that “every additional ton of greenhouse gas emissions exacerbates Plaintiffs’ injuries and risks locking in irreversible climate injuries.” The state, she made it abundantly clear, is obligated to correct such a situation.

The plaintiffs, who were all in their teens or younger when their suit, Held v. Montana, was filed three years ago, are represented by a nonprofit group, Our Children’s Trust. Since 2011, it has been pursuing climate action on behalf of this country’s youth in the courts of all 50 states. The Montana case was simply the first to go to trial. The second, a climate case against the Hawaii Department of Transportation, is scheduled to begin next summer. 

Matt Rosendale, a Montana Republican serving in the House of Representatives, responded to the Held v. Montana decision with the worst sort of condescending bluster. “This is not a school project,” he insisted. “It’s a courtroom… Judge Seeley did a huge disservice to the courts and to these youths by allowing them to be used as pawns in the Left’s poorly thought-out plan to ruin our power grid and compromise our national security in the name of their Green New Fantasy.”

The only fantasy, however, was Rosendale’s characterization of the proceedings. The plaintiffs’ case was overwhelmingly persuasive, with extensive testimony from climate and pediatric health experts showing that people younger than 25 were going to be especially vulnerable to the many impacts climate change is going to have on physical and psychological health. In her ruling, Seeley summarized some of the damages to which the plaintiffs had testified. 

All of the young people in the suit were afflicted with allergies and asthma (three especially severely) and had suffered significant health problems thanks to the unavoidable inhalation of smoke from North America’s ever-increasing wildfires. Much of that damage had occurred during Montana’s horrendous fire seasons of 2017 (when more than 2,400 fires burned across 1.4 million acres of the state) and 2021 (when more than 2,500 fires burned almost 1 million more), followed, of course, by the smoke from the devastating and ongoing Canadian wildfires of this spring and summer.  

Three Indigenous plaintiffs testified that climate disruption has already ensured that their traditional sources of food and medicinal plants would become ever scarcer. As a result, it is preventing them from taking part in their usual cultural practices, including ones involving increasingly scarce snow. As the lawsuit put it, the changing planet has “disrupted tribal spiritual practices and longstanding rhythms of tribal life by changing the timing of natural events like bird migration.”

Testimony also showed that the extreme heat of recent summers, only expected to grow more severe in the coming years, is threatening the health of the plaintiffs, all of whom engage in extensive outdoor work or recreation. Those who participate in competitive sports have seen their training severely curtailed by summer heat (and for one of them, a Nordic skier, by lack of winter snow). The plaintiffs’ ability to hunt and fish, especially important in Montana, is being dramatically limited by drought and wildfire.

Some of the plaintiffs testified that increasing damage from storms, flooding, wildfires, and drought will make it ever more difficult, if not impossible, to keep their family’s property intact for coming generations. And backed by the testimony of several experts, the young plaintiffs explained how the increasing chaos brought on by climate change had left them with feelings of deep distress, despair, and loss.

Congressman Rosendale undoubtedly read none of their testimony, which made it so much easier for him to callously dismiss their plight, while accusing them of being witless “pawns” of far greater forces. How, after all, could anyone have been left unmoved by the poignant testimony of 20-year-old Olivia Vesovich? She told the court that, given the severe and ever worsening impact of climate change, she “would not want to make a child endure that. It is one of the greatest sadnesses of my life — and my family is one of the most important parts of my life — that I may not be starting a family of my own. It breaks my heart, it really does.”

Plaintiffs from the Future

From the 1990s through the first two decades of this century, academic discussion of “intergenerational climate justice” weighed the interests of the “current generation” that may or may not do what’s needed to end greenhouse gas emissions against “future generations” lacking any say in the matter. They will nonetheless suffer its increasingly severe consequences. (Of course, those of us in privileged societies have also largely ignored the billions of people globally with no say in the matter and so the functional equivalents of those “future generations.”)

Now, with heat waves, megafires, increasingly severe freak storms, and floods striking ever more often, those at-risk future generations are finally beginning to show up, well ahead of schedule. That, after all, is just what the Held v. Montana plaintiffs are, as are the young Global South activists who shook up the most recent world climate summits by refusing to accept the selling-out of their future.

Though it’s cited often enough in relation to climate change, there’s nothing magical about the year 2050. It’s just a nice, round, midcentury number. That’s undoubtedly why world climate negotiators have chosen it as the target year for national pledges to drive greenhouse gas emissions down to zero.

Come 2050, the Montana plaintiffs will only be in their thirties and forties. By that time, they should know whether the world acted boldly enough in the 2020s to turn the climate emergency around.

In court, the young plaintiffs expressed deep concern not only for their own health and well-being but for those of their potential children and grandchildren. What kind of future will they and their kids face? For one thing, those still living in Montana in 2050 can expect to deal with wildfire and smoke disasters far worse than the ones endured in 2017, 2021, or 2023. Predictions are that, without drastic action, between 2041 and 2070, much of Montana will see a 600% increase in the incidence of “very large wildfires” — those covering 20 square miles or more.

The fire risk will have been raised largely by intensifying global heat. Consider this warning from U.S. government scientists, should the world economy carry on with business-as-usual in the coming decades:

“[A] teenager in eastern Montana in 2075 might experience maximum summer temperatures that his or her grandparents would have had to travel to the Mojave Desert to see, [while] a child born in southern Texas in 2060 might experience as much as 6 weeks per summer when maximum temperatures are hotter than his or her grandparents experienced just once per year. And in this same future, a child in the southeastern United States can expect to spend more than half of his or her summer experiencing heat waves that would have occurred only 3 days per year for his or her grandparents.”

Unless there are steep reductions in global carbon emissions, Montana will be eternally burning, while much of the country to the south and east grows even hotter and more unbearably humid. So, should young Montanans migrate north to Canada? At one time, that seemed like a viable climate escape route. But in 2023, with a large share of the U.S. population inhaling smoke from the extraordinarily vast and intense wildfires burning across that country, month after month, northward migration could just be a jump from the frying pan into the all-too-literal fire.

A Constitutional Right to a Future

Such dire forecasts are based on worst-case “business-as-usual” scenarios, and that’s important. After all, catastrophe is not inevitable. If today’s youth find themselves facing such nightmares in the 2050s, it will be because our nation and the rest of the world didn’t act in a necessary fashion in this decade. Such conditions can indeed be prevented, but only if the climate struggle intensifies.

When the Montana 16 filed their suit in 2020, only two of them were old enough to vote in that fall’s election. But as Judge Seeley ruled, they all had standing to challenge the fossil-fuel juggernaut in a court of law. And so far, they’re winning.

Amber Polk, assistant professor of law at Florida International University, focuses her studies on new legal claims by the environmental rights movement. She recently wrote a short history of “green amendments” — constitutional provisions like the section of Article IX on which Held v. Montana relied. Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, and Pennsylvania all added such provisions to their state constitutions in the 1970s, as environmentalism was surging. But in the 1980s and 1990s, legal cases based on green amendments foundered until, in 1999, the Supreme Court of — you guessed it! — Montana struck down laws that permitted water pollution, basing their decision on the constitutional “right” of state residents “to a clean and healthful environment.”

Fourteen years later, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court relied on a similar green amendment to strike down a law permitting hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) statewide. Until Held v. Montana, though, green amendments had not been used to challenge laws explicitly affecting climate policy. Count on one thing, however: they will be widely tested in the coming years (though a conservative, anything-but-environmentalist Supreme Court could prove a problem in wielding them).

The Montana case, writes Polk,

“sets a groundbreaking precedent for climate litigation and demonstrates a new way in which green amendments can be invoked to elicit environmental change. It suggests that in other states with green amendments, state laws cannot forbid the consideration of greenhouse gas emissions and their climate impact during environmental review… In the states that have green amendments, climate advocates will certainly rely on the Montana youth case as they challenge state laws that promote climate change.

And expect ever more challenges in places where such green amendments exist. New York typically passed one last year and 13 other states — some red like Montana, some blue, some purple — are considering them, according to Polk.

Unfortunately, only limited reductions of greenhouse gases can be achieved via state-by-state challenges to bad laws. Congressional action would be needed to, for example, achieve the most essential policy of all: a rapid, mandatory phase-out of oil, natural gas, and coal nationwide. You would, however, need a very different Congress to have a hope in hell of passing such a bill. Still, such a phase-out is a goal of Juliana v. United States, another youth climate lawsuit, originally filed in federal court in 2015 and still pending after eight long years.

In that case, 21 plaintiffs, aged seven to 19 (at the time of its filing) and backed by Our Children’s Trust, allege that the federal government has permitted the continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels despite knowing that they cause “dangerous concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere and a dangerous climate system, and irreversible harm to the natural systems critical to Plaintiffs’ rights to life, liberty, and property.” These activities, it adds, “unconstitutionally favor the present, temporary economic benefits of certain citizens, especially corporations, over Plaintiffs’ rights to life, liberty, and property.”

In Juliana, the youthful plaintiffs are asking the courts to order the federal government to take wide-ranging, ambitious climate action, including “to prepare and implement an enforceable national remedial plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric CO2.”

Three administrations — Obama’s, Trump’s, and now Biden’s — have vigorously fought back against the youths’ case and, in 2021, it appeared doomed when an appeals court ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing. This summer, however, Juliana came back from the dead when a federal judge in Oregon ruled that the plaintiffs could proceed to trial after amending their filing. It remains in limbo, however, thanks to continued fierce opposition from President Biden’s Department of Justice. As CNN reported, the DOJ “has argued there is no federal public trust doctrine that creates a right for a stable climate system for U.S. citizens.”

Such a refusal to take climate disruption seriously came even as the president was touring the country and bragging about energy and electric-vehicle projects related to the climate provisions in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act. Biden, it seems, is happy to take credit for limited green actions, but isn’t faintly ready to plan for truly phasing out fossil fuels and so keeping the world livable through this century and beyond. So, give some credit to the young who are pushing him, the courts, and Congress to ensure that they have a future worth living for. In truth, nothing matters more than that.


The South China Sea’s Resource Wars and Environmental Collapse Wed, 13 Sep 2023 04:04:54 +0000 By

( – It’s an ocean of conflict and ecological decline. Despite its vast size — 1.3 million square miles — the South China Sea has become a microcosm of the geopolitical tensions between East and West, where territorial struggles over abundant natural resources may one day lead to environmental collapse.

While the threat of a devastating military conflict between China and the United States in the region still looms, the South China Sea has already experienced irreparable damage. Decades of over-harvesting have, for instance, had a disastrous impact on that sea’s once-flourishing fish. The tuna, mackerel, and shark populations have fallen to 50% of their 1960s levels. Biologically critical coral reef atolls, struggling to survive rising ocean temperatures, are also being buried under sand and silt as the Chinese military lays claim to and builds on the disputed Spratly Islands, an archipelago of 14 small isles and 113 reefs in that sea. Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam have also laid claim to many of the same islands.

Perhaps no one should be surprised since oil and gas deposits are plentiful in the South China Sea. The U.S. government estimates that 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are ready to be extracted from its floor. Such fossil-fuel reserves, some believe, are helping to — yes, how can anyone not use the word? — fuel the turmoil increasingly engulfing the region.

This year, the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reported that several countries are pursuing new oil and gas development projects in those contested waters, which, the organization notes, could become a “flashpoint in the disputes.” Between 2018 and 2021, there were numerous standoffs between China, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian countries over drilling operations there, and fears are building that even more severe confrontations lie ahead.

The United States, of course, lays the blame for all of this on China, claiming its aggressive island-reclamation projects violate international law and “militarize an already tense and contested area.” Yet the U.S. is also playing a significant part in raising tensions in the region by agreeing to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines as part of its Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) security pact. The goal, no doubt, is to restrain Chinese activity with the threat of Western military might. “Next steps could include basing U.S. nuclear-capable platforms — such as strategic bombers — in Australia as well as cooperation on hypersonic missiles, cyber operations, [and] quantum computing,” writes Derek Grossman for the Rand Corporation, the “paramilitary academy” of American defense policy. (And, in fact, the U.S. is evidently preparing to deploy the first nuclear-capable B-52s to that country soon.)

On August 25th, in partnership with Australia and the Philippines (where Washington is getting ready to occupy bases ever closer to China), U.S. Marines practiced retaking an “island” supposedly captured by hostile forces. In that exercise,1,760 Australian and Filipino soldiers and 120 U.S. Marines conducted mock beach landings and air assault maneuvers in Rizal, a small town in western Palawan province in the Philippines, which does indeed face the South China Sea.

“A whole lot of damage can be done to Australia before any potential adversary sets foot on our shores and maintaining the rules-based order in Southeast Asia, maintaining the collective security of Southeast Asia, is fundamental to maintaining the national security of our country,” said Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles of the joint military drills. 

Like AUKUS itself, those war games were intended to send a message: China beware. The resources of the South China Sea aren’t for the taking.

But here’s a question to consider: Is all this international saber-rattling only about fossil fuels? Trade routes through the area are also vital to the Chinese economy, while its fisheries account for 15% of the reported global wild fish catch. Yet neither its well-used shipping routes, necessary as they are to the flow of goods globally, nor those fisheries fully explain the ever-heightening controversy over the region. Having exploited that sea’s wild fisheries for decades, China is now becoming a global leader in fish farming, which already accounts for 72% of the country’s domestic fish production, It’s also increasingly true that fossil fuels have a distinct shelf life. But is it possible that another set of natural resources, arguably more crucial to the economic future of the global superpowers, could be adding to the growing territorial furor over who possesses the goods in the South China Sea?

Mining the Deep Blue Sea

You could call it a race to the bottom, with China leading the charge. In December 2022, that country unveiled its Ocean Drilling Ship, a deep sea mining (DSM) vessel the size of a battle cruiser set to be operational by 2024. Instead of weaponry, however, the ship is equipped with advanced excavation equipment capable of drilling at depths of 32,000 feet. On land, the Chinese already hold a virtual monopoly on metals considered vital to “green” energy development, including cobalt, copper, and lithium. Currently, the Chinese control 60% of the world’s supply of such “green” metals and are now eyeing the abundant resources that exist beneath the ocean’s floor as well. By some estimates, that seabed may contain 1,000 times more rare earth elements than those below dry ground.

It’s difficult to believe that devastating the ocean’s depths in search of minerals for electric batteries and other technologies could offer a sustainable way to fend off climate change. In the process, after all, such undersea mining is likely to have a catastrophic impact, including destroying biodiversity. Right now, it’s impossible to gauge just what sort of damage will be inflicted by such operations, since deep-sea mining is exempt from environmental impact assessments. (How convenient for those who will argue about how crucial they will be to producing a greener, more sustainable future.)

The U.N.’s High Seas Treaty, ratified in March 2023, failed to include environmental rules regulating such practices after China blocked any discussion of a possible moratorium on seabed harvesting. As of 2022, China holds five exploration contracts issued by the U.N.’s International Seabed Authority (ISA), allowing the Chinese to conduct tests and sample contents on the ocean floor. While that U.N. body can divvy up such contracts, they have no power to regulate the industry itself, nor the personnel to do so. This has scientists worried that unfettered deep-sea mining could cause irreparable damage, including killing sea creatures and destroying delicate habitats.

“We’ve only scratched the surface of understanding the deep ocean,” said Dr. Andrew Chin, a scientific adviser to the Australian-based Save Our Seas Foundation.

“Science is just starting to appreciate that the deep sea is not an empty void but is brimming with wonderful and unique life forms. Deep sea ecosystems form an interconnected realm with mid and surface waters through the movement of species, energy flows, and currents. Not only will the nodule mining result in the loss of these species and damage deep sea beds for thousands of years, it will potentially result in negative consequences for the rest of the ocean and the people who depend on its health.”

Others are concerned that the ISA, even if it had the authority to regulate the budding industry, wouldn’t do it all that well. “Not only does the ISA favor the interests of mining companies over the advice of scientists, but its processes for EIA [environmental impact assessment] approvals are questionable,” says Dr. Helen Rosenbaum of the Deep-Sea Mining Campaign.

This brings us back to the South China Sea, which, according to Chinese researchers, holds large reserves of “strategically important” precious metals. China has already been fervently scouting for deposits of the polymetallic nodules that hold a number of metals used in virtually all green technologies.

“Learning the distribution of polymetallic nodules will help us to choose a site for experimenting with collection, which is one of the main goals of the mission,” said Wu Changbin, general commander of the Jiaolong, a submarine that discovered just such polymetallic nodules in the South China Sea.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S., lagging behind China in acquiring minerals for green technologies, has been keeping close tabs on the competition. In 2017, a Navy P3-Orion spy plane conducted repeated flyovers of a Chinese research vessel near the island of Guam. Scientists on the ship were allegedly mapping the area and planting monitoring devices for future deep-sea exploration.

The story is much the same in the South China Sea, where the U.S. has conducted numerous surveillance operations to follow Chinese activities there. In May, an Air Force RC-135 surveillance plane was intercepted by a Chinese J-16 jet fighter, causing an international uproar. Without providing any justification for why a U.S. spy plane was there in the first place, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken quickly pointed the finger at China’s recklessness. “[The] Chinese pilot took dangerous action in approaching the plane very, very closely,” claimed Blinken. “There have been a series of these actions directed not just at us, but in other countries in recent months.”

While these quarrels no doubt have much to do with control over fossil fuels, oil, and natural gas aren’t the only resources in the region that are vital to the forthcoming exploits of both countries.

Capitalism and the Climate

Across the globe, oil and coal are increasingly becoming things of the past. A report released in June 2023 by the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggested that renewables were “set to soar by 107 gigawatts (GW), the largest absolute increase ever, to more than 440 GW in 2023.” The natural resources supplying this global surge in renewables, like copper and lithium, are becoming the popular new version of fossil fuels. Markets are favoring the phase-out of climate-warming energy sources, which is why China and the United States are forging ahead with mining critical minerals for renewables — not because they care about the future of the planet but because green energy is becoming profitable.

China’s foray into the global capitalist system and the ruins left in its wake are easy enough to track. In the late 1970s, China’s leaders liberalized the country’s markets and opened the floodgates on foreign investment, making it —  at an average clip of 9.5% per year — one of the fastest-growing economies ever. The World Bank described China’s financial boom as “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.” It’s no surprise, then, that energy consumption exploded along with its economic gains.

Like many of its global competitors, China’s economy still relies heavily on carbon-intensive fossil fuels, especially coal, but an ever-growing portion of its energy portfolio is made up of renewable energy. Steel-making and vehicle manufacturing now account for 66% of China’s energy use, transportation 9%, and residential use 13%. And while coal is still fueling that economic engine in a major way — China uses more coal than the rest of the world combined — the country has also become a (if not the) world leader in renewables, investing an estimated $545 billion in new technologies in 2022 alone.

While China uses more energy than any other country, Americans consume significantly more than two times that of the Chinese on an individual basis (73,677 kilowatts versus 28,072 as of 2023). And while the U.S. uses more energy per person, it also gets less of its energy from renewables.

As of 2022, the U.S. government estimated that only 13.1% of the country’s primary energy was produced through renewable sources.  Even so, the energy transition in the U.S. is happening and, while natural gas has largely replaced coal, renewables are making considerable inroads. In fact, the Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law by President Biden in early 2022, earmarked $430 billion in government investment and tax credits for green-energy development.

The World Economic Forum estimates that three billion tons of metals and fine minerals will be needed for the world’s energy transition if we are to reach zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 — and that number will undoubtedly only grow in the decades ahead. Of course, investors love to cash in and the forthcoming explosion in the mining of green metals on land and in the world’s waters will surely be a windfall for Wall Street and its equivalents globally. BloombergNEF (BNEF), which covers global markets, claims that the demand for key metals and minerals for the energy transition will grow at least fivefold over the next 30 years, which represents something like a $10 trillion opportunity. At stake is the mining of critical minerals like lithium and traditional metals like copper, which will be used in power generation, electrical grids, energy storage, and transportation.

“[T]he energy transition could lead to a super-cycle for the metals and mining industry,” says Yuchen Huo, a mining analyst for BNEF. “This cycle will be driven by massive expansions in clean energy technologies, which would spur demand growth for both critical minerals and traditional metals.”

It should be no surprise, then, that countries like China and the United States are likely to battle (perhaps all too literally) over access to the finite natural resources vital to the world’s energy transition. Capitalism depends on it. From Africa to the South China Sea, nations are scouring the globe for new, profitable energy ventures. In the Pacific Ocean, which covers 30% of the Earth’s surface, the hunt for polymetallic nodules is prompting island governments to open their waters to excavation in a significant way. The Cook Islands has typically issued licenses to explore its nearby ocean’s depths. Kiribati, Nauru, and Tonga have funded missions to investigate deposits in the Clarion Clipperton Zone, a 1.7 million square mile area stretching between the island of Kiribati and Mexico.

“This [deep sea] exploration frenzy is occurring in the absence of regulatory regimes or conservation areas to protect the unique and little-known ecosystems of the deep sea,” contends Dr. Rosenbaum of the Deep-Sea Mining Campaign. “The health and environmental impacts of deep-sea mining will be widespread… The sea is a dynamic and interconnected environment. The impacts of even a single mine will not be contained to the deep sea.”

According to those who want to mine our way out of the climate crisis, such highly sought-after metals and minerals will remain crucial to weaning the world off dirty fossil fuels. Yet, count on one thing: they will come at a grave cost — not only geopolitically but environmentally, too — and perhaps nowhere will such impacts be felt more devastatingly than in the world’s fragile seas, including the South China Sea where major armed powers are already facing off in an unnerving fashion, with the toll on both those waters and the rest of us still to be discovered.

How 9/11 Bred a “War on Terror” from Hell Fri, 08 Sep 2023 04:02:26 +0000

America’s Response to 9/11 in the Lens of History

By Norman Solomon | –

[Today’s piece is adapted from the introduction to Norman Solomon’s book War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine (The New Press, 2023).]

( – The day after the U.S. government began routinely bombing faraway places, the lead editorial in the New York Times expressed some gratification. Nearly four weeks had passed since 9/11, the newspaper noted, and America had finally stepped up its “counterattack against terrorism” by launching airstrikes on al-Qaeda training camps and Taliban military targets in Afghanistan. “It was a moment we have expected ever since September 11,” the editorial said. “The American people, despite their grief and anger, have been patient as they waited for action. Now that it has begun, they will support whatever efforts it takes to carry out this mission properly.”

As the United States continued to drop bombs in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s daily briefings catapulted him into a stratosphere of national adulation. As the Washington Post’s media reporter put it: “Everyone is genuflecting before the Pentagon powerhouse… America’s new rock star.” That winter, the host of NBC’s Meet the Press, Tim Russert, told Rumsfeld: “Sixty-nine years old and you’re America’s stud.”

The televised briefings that brought such adoration included claims of deep-seated decency in what was by then already known as the Global War on Terror. “The targeting capabilities, and the care that goes into targeting, to see that the precise targets are struck, and that other targets are not struck, is as impressive as anything anyone could see,” Rumsfeld asserted. And he added, “The weapons that are being used today have a degree of precision that no one ever dreamt of.”

Whatever their degree of precision, American weapons were, in fact, killing a lot of Afghan civilians. The Project on Defense Alternatives concluded that American air strikes had killed more than 1,000 civilians during the last three months of 2001. By mid-spring 2002, the Guardian reported, “as many as 20,000 Afghans may have lost their lives as an indirect consequence of the U.S. intervention.”

Eight weeks after the intensive bombing had begun, however, Rumsfeld dismissed any concerns about casualties: “We did not start this war. So understand, responsibility for every single casualty in this war, whether they’re innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” In the aftermath of 9/11, the process was fueling a kind of perpetual emotion machine without an off switch.

Under the “war on terror” rubric, open-ended warfare was well underway — “as if terror were a state and not a technique,” as Joan Didion wrote in 2003 (two months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq). “We had seen, most importantly, the insistent use of September 11 to justify the reconception of America’s correct role in the world as one of initiating and waging virtually perpetual war.”

In a single sentence, Didion had captured the essence of a quickly calcified set of assumptions that few mainstream journalists were willing to question. Those assumptions were catnip for the lions of the military-industrial-intelligence complex. After all, the budgets at “national security” agencies (both long-standing and newly created) had begun to soar with similar vast outlays going to military contractors. Worse yet, there was no end in sight as mission creep accelerated into a dash for cash.

For the White House, the Pentagon, and Congress, the war on terror offered a political license to kill and displace people on a large scale in at least eight countries. The resulting carnage often included civilians. The dead and maimed had no names or faces that reached those who signed the orders and appropriated the funds. And as the years went by, the point seemed to be not winning that multicontinental war but continuing to wage it, a means with no plausible end. Stopping, in fact, became essentially unthinkable. No wonder Americans couldn’t be heard wondering aloud when the “war on terror” would end. It wasn’t supposed to.

“I Mourn the Death of My Uncle…”

The first days after 9/11 foreshadowed what was to come. Media outlets kept amplifying rationales for an aggressive military response, while the traumatic events of September 11th were assumed to be just cause. When the voices of shock and anguish from those who had lost loved ones endorsed going to war, the message could be moving and motivating.

Meanwhile, President George W. Bush — with only a single congressional negative vote — fervently drove that war train, using religious symbolism to grease its wheels. On September 14th, declaring that “we come before God to pray for the missing and the dead, and for those who love them,” Bush delivered a speech at the Washington National Cathedral, claiming that “our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil. War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder. This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing.”

President Bush cited a story exemplifying “our national character”: “Inside the World Trade Center, one man who could have saved himself stayed until the end at the side of his quadriplegic friend.”

That man was Abe Zelmanowitz. Later that month, his nephew, Matthew Lasar, responded to the president’s tribute in a prophetic way:

“I mourn the death of my uncle, and I want his murderers brought to justice. But I am not making this statement to demand bloody vengeance… Afghanistan has more than a million homeless refugees. A U.S. military intervention could result in the starvation of tens of thousands of people. What I see coming are actions and policies that will cost many more innocent lives, and breed more terrorism, not less. I do not feel that my uncle’s compassionate, heroic sacrifice will be honored by what the U.S. appears poised to do.”

The president’s announced grandiose objectives were overwhelmingly backed by the media, elected officials, and the bulk of the public. Typical was this pledge Bush made to a joint session of Congress six days after his sermon at the National Cathedral: “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”

Yet by late September, as the Pentagon’s assault plans became public knowledge, a few bereaved Americans began speaking out in opposition. Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez, whose son Greg had died in the World Trade Center, offered this public appeal:

“We read enough of the news to sense that our government is heading in the direction of violent revenge, with the prospect of sons, daughters, parents, friends in distant lands dying, suffering, and nursing further grievances against us. It is not the way to go. It will not avenge our son’s death. Not in our son’s name. Our son died a victim of an inhuman ideology. Our actions should not serve the same purpose.”

Judy Keane, who lost her husband Richard at the World Trade Center, similarly told an interviewer: “Bombing Afghanistan is just going to create more widows, more homeless, fatherless children.”

And Iraq Came Next

While indescribable pain, rage, and fear set the U.S. cauldron to boil, national leaders promised that their alchemy would bring unalloyed security via a global war effort. It would become unceasing, one in which the deaths and bereavement of equally innocent people, thanks to U.S. military actions, would be utterly devalued.

In tandem with Washington’s top political leaders, the fourth estate was integral to sustaining the grief-fueled adrenaline rush that made launching a global war against terrorism seem like the only decent option, with Afghanistan initially in the country’s gunsights and news outlets filled with calls for retribution. Bush administration officials, however, didn’t encourage any focus whatsoever on U.S. petro-ally Saudi Arabia, the country from which 15 of the 19 September 11th hijackers came. (None were Afghans.)

By the time the United States began its invasion of Afghanistan, 26 days after 9/11, the assault could easily appear to be a fitting response to popular demand. Hours after the Pentagon’s missiles began to explode in that country, a Gallup poll found that “90 percent of Americans approve of the United States taking such military action, while just 5 percent are opposed, and another 5 percent are unsure.”

Such lopsided approval was a testament to how thoroughly the messaging for a “war on terror” had taken hold. It would have then been little short of heretical to predict that such retribution would cause many more innocent people to die than in the 9/11 mass murder. During the years to come, the foreseeable deaths of Afghan civilians would be downplayed, discounted, or simply ignored as incidental “collateral damage” (a term that Time magazine defined as “meaning dead or wounded civilians who should have picked a safer neighborhood”).

What had occurred on September 11th remained front and center. What began happening to Afghans that October 7th would be relegated to, at most, peripheral vision. Amid the righteous grief that had swallowed up the United States, few words would have been less welcome or more relevant than these from a poem by W.H. Auden: “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”

Even then, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was already in the Pentagon’s crosshairs. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September 2002, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld didn’t miss a beat when Senator Mark Dayton questioned the need to attack Iraq, asking, “What is compelling us to now make a precipitous decision and take precipitous actions?”

Rumsfeld replied: “What’s different? What’s different is 3,000 people were killed.”

In other words, the humanity of those who died on 9/11 would loom so large that the fate of Iraqis would be rendered invisible.

In reality, Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Official claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction would similarly prove to be fabrications, part of a post-9/11 pattern of falsehoods used to justify aggression that made those who actually lived in Iraq distinctly beside the point. As I shuttled between San Francisco and Baghdad three times in the four months that preceded the March 2003 invasion, I felt I was traveling between two far-flung planets, one increasingly abuzz with debates about a coming war and the other just hoping to survive.

When the Bush administration and the American military machine finally launched that war, it would cause the deaths of perhaps 200,000 Iraqi civilians, while “several times as many more have been killed as a reverberating effect” of that conflict, according to the meticulous estimates of the Costs of War Project at Brown University. Unlike those killed on 9/11, the Iraqi dead were routinely off the American media radar screen, as were the psychological traumas suffered by Iraqis and the decimation of their country’s infrastructure. For U.S. soldiers and civilians on contractor payrolls, that war’s death toll would climb to 8,250, while back home, media attention to the ordeals of combat veterans and their families would turn out to be fleeting at best.

Still, for the industrial part of the military-industrial-congressional complex, the Iraq War would prove all too successful. That long conflagration gave huge boosts to profits for Pentagon contractors while, propelled by the normalization of endless war, Defense Department budgets kept spiking upward. And Iraq’s vast oil reserves, nationalized and off-limits to Western companies before the invasion, would end up in mega-corporate hands like those of Shell, BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil. Several years after the invasion, some prominent Americans acknowledged that the war in Iraq was largely for oil, including the former head of U.S. Central Command in Iraq, General John Abizaid, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, and then-senator and future Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

The Never-Ending War on Terror

The “war on terror” spread to far corners of the globe. In September 2021, when President Biden told the U.N. General Assembly, “I stand here today, for the first time in 20 years, with the United States not at war,” the Costs of War Project reported that U.S. “counterterrorism operations” were still underway in 85 countries — including “air and drone strikes” and “on-the-ground combat,” as well as “so-called ‘Section 127e’ programs in which U.S. special operations forces plan and control partner force missions, military exercises in preparation for or as part of counterterrorism missions, and operations to train and assist foreign forces.”

Many of those expansive activities have been in Africa. As early as 2014, pathbreaking journalist Nick Turse reported for TomDispatch that the U.S. military was already averaging “far more than a mission a day on the continent, conducting operations with almost every African military force, in almost every African country, while building or building up camps, compounds, and ‘contingency security locations.’”

Since then, the U.S. government has expanded its often-secretive interventions on that continent. In late August 2023, Turse wrote that “at least 15 U.S.-supported officers have been involved in 12 coups in West Africa and the greater Sahel during the war on terror.” Despite claiming that it seeks to “promote regional security, stability, and prosperity,” the U.S. Africa Command is often focused on such destabilizing missions.

With far fewer troops on the ground in combat and more reliance on air power, the “war on terror” has evolved and diversified while rarely sparking discord in American media echo chambers or on Capitol Hill. What remains is the standard Manichean autopilot of American thought, operating in sync with the structural affinity for war that’s built into the military-industrial complex.

A pattern of regret — distinct from remorse — for the venture militarism that failed to triumph in Afghanistan and Iraq does exist, but there is little evidence that the underlying repetition-compulsion disorder has been exorcised from the country’s foreign-policy leadership or mass media, let alone its political economy. On the contrary, 22 years after 9/11, the forces that have dragged the United States into war in so many countries still retain enormous sway over foreign and military affairs. The warfare state continues to rule.


The Rules of Engagement of Violent Islamophobia: 22 Years of Drone Warfare and No End in Sight Wed, 06 Sep 2023 04:02:44 +0000 By Maha Hilal | –

( ) – “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”  

That’s what a young Pakistani boy named Zubair told members of Congress at a hearing on drones in October 2013. That hearing was during the Obama years at a time when the government had barely even acknowledged that an American drone warfare program existed. 

Two years earlier, however, a Muslim cleric, Anwar Al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, both American citizens, were killed by U.S. drone strikes in Yemen just weeks apart. Asked to comment on Abdulrahman’s killing, Obama campaign senior adviser Robert Gibbs said: “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well-being of their children. I don’t think becoming an al-Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.”

Those are two of all too many grim tales of the brutality with which the United States has carried out its drone warfare program. Post-9/11 reiterations by the government of the danger we now live in (because the U.S. was attacked), have made the collective responsibility of Muslims and the callous dismissal of their deaths a regular occurrence.  

In 2023, this country’s drone warfare program has entered its third decade with no end in sight. Despite the fact that the 22nd anniversary of 9/11 is approaching, policymakers have demonstrated no evidence of reflecting on the failures of drone warfare and how to stop it. Instead, the focus continues to be on simply shifting drone policy in minor ways within an ongoing violent system.

The Inherent Dehumanization of Drone Warfare

In February 2013, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney justified drone strikes as a key tool of American foreign policy this way:  

“We have acknowledged, the United States, that sometimes we use remotely piloted aircraft to conduct targeted strikes against specific al-Qaeda terrorists in order to prevent attacks on the United States and to save American lives. We conduct those strikes because they are necessary to mitigate ongoing actual threats, to stop plots, prevent future attacks, and, again, save American lives… The U.S. government takes great care in deciding to pursue an al-Qaeda terrorist, to ensure precision and to avoid loss of innocent life.”

More aggressively endorsing the use of such drones, Georgetown Professor Daniel Byman, who has held government positions, emphasized the necessity of such warfare to protect American lives. “Drones,” he wrote, “have done their job remarkably well… And they have done so at little financial cost, at no risk to U.S. forces, and with fewer civilian casualties than many alternative methods would have caused.”

In reality, however, Washington’s war on terror has inflicted disproportionate violence on communities across the globe, while using this form of asymmetrical warfare to further expand the space between the value placed on American lives and those of Muslims. As the rhetoric on drone warfare suggests, the value of life and the need to protect it are, as far as Washington is concerned, reserved for Americans and their allies.

Since the war on terror was launched, the London-based watchdog group Airwars has estimated that American air strikes have killed at least 22,679 civilians and possibly up to 48,308 of them. Such killings have been carried out for the most part by desensitized killers, who have been primed towards the dehumanization of the targets of those murderous machines. In the words of critic Saleh Sharief, “The detached nature of drone warfare has anonymized and dehumanized the enemy, greatly diminishing the necessary psychological barriers of killing.” 

In his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman focuses on the “mechanical distancing” of modern warfare, thanks to “the sterile Nintendo-game unreality of killing through a TV screen, a thermal sight, a sniper sight, or some other kind of mechanical bugger that permits the killer to deny the humanity of his victim.” Scholar Grégoire Chamayou describes this phenomenon in even starker terms. Thanks to the distance between the drone operator and the victim, “One is never spattered by the adversary’s blood. No doubt the absence of any physical soiling corresponds to less of a sense of moral soiling… Above all, it ensures that the operator will never see his victim seeing him doing what he does to him.”  

Needless to say, drone technology has rendered those in distant lands so much more disposable in the name of American national security. This is because such long-range techno-targeting has created a profound level of dehumanization that, ironically enough, has only made the repeated act of long-distance killing, of (not to mince words) slaughter, remarkably banal.  

In these years of the war on terror, the legalities of drone warfare coupled with the way its technology capitalizes on an unfortunate aspect of human psychology has made the dehumanization of Muslims (and so violence against them) that much easier to carry out. It’s made their drone killing so much more of a given because it’s taken for granted that Muslims in “target sites” or conflict zones must be terrorists whose removal should be beyond questioning — even after a posthumous determination of their civilian status.

Responsibility, Not Accountability

At a 2016 press conference, President Barack Obama finally responded to a question about the increasing numbers of drone strikes by admitting: “There’s no doubt that civilians were killed that shouldn’t have been.” Then he added, “In situations of war, you know, we have to take responsibility when we’re not acting appropriately.”

Rare as such admissions of “responsibility” have been, however, they remain quite different from accountability. In Obama’s case, all that was offered to the survivors among those who “shouldn’t have been” killed in such drone strikes was an utterly minimal acknowledgment that it was even happening.

While the use of drones in the war on terror began under President George W. Bush, it escalated dramatically under Obama. Then, in the Trump years, it rose yet again. Halfway through Trump’s presidency, drone strikes had already exceeded the total number in the Obama era. Though the use of drones in Joe Biden’s first year in office was lower than Trump’s, what has remained consistent is the lack of the slightest accountability for the slaughter of civilians.  

In 2021, as the U.S. was withdrawing chaotically from its 20-year Afghan War disaster, its military surveilled a white car driving around Kabul, believed it to be carrying explosives, and launched its final drone strike of that conflict, slaughtering 10 Afghans. Two weeks later, after reporting by the New York Times revealed what really happened, the Pentagon finally admitted that only civilians had been killed, seven of them children (but penalized no one). 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin later apologized to the families of those killed and offered compensation — one of the few times American officials had even bothered to acknowledge wrongdoing in Afghanistan in the last 20 years. True to form, however, the government’s pledge to compensate the impacted families has gone unfulfilled, a grim reminder that in none of those years has there been any semblance of justice for civilian survivors of such drone strikes.

A few weeks ago, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Biden administration was forced to release a redacted version of a presidential policy memorandum, signed in October 2022, that detailed the administration’s latest approach to drone warfare globally. At least some details about it were known prior to its release, however, thanks to an anonymous senior administration official

The Washington Post editorial board, among others, celebrated the memo, arguing that the restrictions in place are “smart rules of engagement” and a significant improvement over the Trump years when it comes to limiting civilian damage from drones. In reality, however, Biden’s memo is likely to do little to stem future drone warfare nightmares. In essence, the memo represents a return to Obama-era rules, including the supposed need to have “near-certainty” that the target of a drone strike is a terrorist and “near-certainty” that non-combatants won’t be injured or killed. The memo also includes other criteria that (at least theoretically) must be met before an individual is targeted, including an assessment that capture is not feasible.

In the case of Anwar Al-Awlaki, while the U.S. claimed his capture wasn’t possible, members of his family disputed this. In a Democracy Now interview, Al-Awlaki’s uncle Saleh bin Fareed stated, “I am sure I could have handed him over — me and my family — but they never, ever asked us to do that.” Needless to say, the lack of transparency has made it impossible to know if such standards are being met before a strike takes place and, worse yet, there’s no method of accountability if they aren’t.

That Biden administration memo does ban signature strikes that target individuals whose identities are unknown based on behavior suggesting they might be involved in terrorist activity. Still, we shouldn’t mistake a modestly better policy for a truly legal, moral, and ethical one, especially since the drone strike “mistakes” of the past haven’t led to any genuinely meaningful overhauls of the program.

Minimizing Civilian Deaths?

On September 20, 2001, nine days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress in which he first used the phrase “war on terror,” while announcing a domestic and global campaign to be fought without borders or time constraints. Previewing what, years later, would become known as this country’s “forever wars,” he advised Americans that they “should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success.”

Cameroonian political theorist Achille Mbembe’s theory of necropolitics — that is, the politics of death – catches the essence of the war on terror Bush launched as a way of life (and death) — “the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not.” With the invasion of Afghanistan and the designation of entire largely Muslim parts of the planet as the enemy, the Bush administration began a “war” in which Muslim deaths were necessary for the protection and preservation of American ones.  This set a precedent for the value of Muslim life when the act of killing them could be equated with the security of Americans and the protection of “the homeland.”

Twenty-two years later, drones continue to be instruments of civilian slaughter and the language deployed by successive administrations to describe such slaughter has served to sanitize that fact. Whether it’s the use of “target” or “collateral damage,” both minimize the reality that human beings are being murdered.  Taken together with a larger war-on-terror narrative in which Muslims have been strikingly demonized and criminalized, the result has been the production of killable bodies whose deaths elicit neither guilt, remorse, nor accountability. 

In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama explained why he put “prudent limits” on drone warfare, pointing out that Americans “will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence.” And how right he was.

As yet, however, there have been zero consequences for the air-strike deaths of tens of thousands of civilians globally and, as Obama’s statement suggests, the only real concern this caused American officials was the fear that too many such killings might, in the end, harm Americans.  

Grieving Muslim Lives

In Sana’a, Yemen, a wall with graffiti art shows a U.S. drone under which someone has written in blood-red paint, “Why did you kill my family?” in English and Arabic. The relentless American drone campaign has indeed left all too many civilians in Muslim-majority countries asking the same question. The only answer offered in Washington over all these years is that such killings were unavoidable collateral damage.

But imagine, for a moment, what Americans might do if their family members were regularly being killed by drones because another government claimed “near certainty” that they were terrorists? You know the answer, of course, given the response to the 9/11 attacks: this country would undoubtedly launch a catastrophic war of epic proportions with no conceivable end in sight. In contrast, Muslims targeted by American drones have been left to pick up the all-too-literal pieces of their loved ones, while risking the possibility of also being killed in a double- or triple-tap strike — a level of violence that should never be justified.  

We should all reject a war on terror committed to the disposability of Muslims because no one (including Muslims) should have to mourn the killing of civilians the U.S. has targeted for far too long. Muslim lives have inherent value and their deaths are worth grieving, mourning, and above all valuing. Drone warfare will never change that fact.


Living on a War Planet . . . And Managing not to Notice Wed, 30 Aug 2023 04:02:40 +0000 By

( ) – A new war, a new alibi. When we think about our latest war — the one that began with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, just six months after our Afghan War ended so catastrophically — there is a hidden benefit. As long as American minds are on Ukraine, we are not thinking about planetary climate disruption. This technique of distraction obeys the familiar mechanism that psychologists have called displacement. An apparently new thought and feeling becomes the substitute for harder thoughts and feelings you very much want to avoid.

Every news story about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s latest demand for American or European weaponry also serves another function: the displacement of a story about, say, the Canadian fires which this summer destroyed a forest wilderness the size of the state of Alabama and 1,000 of which are still burning as this article goes to press. Of course, there is always the horrific possibility that Ukraine could pass from a “contained” to a nuclear war, as out of control as those Canadian fires. Yet we are regularly assured that the conflict, close to the heart of Europe, is under careful supervision. The war has a neatly framed villain (Vladimir Putin) and — thanks to both the U.S. and NATO — a great many good people containing him. What could possibly go wrong?

A fantasy has taken root among well-meaning liberals. Ukraine, they believe, is the “good war” people like them have been searching for since 1945. “This is our Spain,” young enthusiasts have been heard to say, referring to the Spanish Republican war against fascism. In Ukraine in the early 2020s, unlike Spain in the late 1930s, the Atlantic democracies will not falter but will go on “as long as it takes.” Also, the climate cause will be assisted along the way, since Russia is a large supplier of natural gas and oil, and the world needs to unhook itself from both.

That theory got tested a year ago, with the underwater sabotage of Russia’s Nordstream natural gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea. President Biden, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland all welcomed that environmental disaster. In an eventually deleted message the former Polish foreign minister and war advocate Radislaw Sikorski tweeted thanks to the U.S. for what he took to be a transparently American operation. The American media, however, treated the attack as an imponderable mystery, some reports even suggesting that Russia might have destroyed its own invaluable pipeline for reasons yet to be fathomed. Then, in a February 2023 article, the independent investigative reporter Seymour Hersh traced the attack to the U.S., and later Western reports would come halfway to his conclusion by assigning credit to Ukraine, or a pro-Ukrainian group. As of late summer, all reporting on the Nordstream disaster seems to have stopped. What has not stopped is the killing. The numbers of dead and wounded in the Ukraine war are now estimated at nearly half a million, with no end in sight.

The Nordstream wreck was only one attention-getting catastrophe within the greater horror that a war always is. An act of industrial sabotage on a vast scale, it was also an act of environmental terrorism, causing the largest methane leak in the history of the planet. According to a report in Forbes, “The subsequent increase in greenhouse gases… was equivalent to as much as 32% of Denmark’s annual emissions.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine was an illegal and immoral act, but the adjective that usually follows illegal and immoral is “unprovoked.” In truth, this war was provoked. A contributing cause, impossible to ignore, was the eastward extension of NATO, always moving closer to the western borders of Russia, in the years from 1991 to 2022. That expansion was gradual but relentless. Consider the look of such a policy to the country –- no longer Communist and barely a great power — which, in 2013, American leaders again began to describe as an adversary. 

With the end of the Cold War in 1991 (the very global conflict that gave NATO its reason for being), the eastward projection of the alliance accelerated dramatically. Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, all former members of the Soviet bloc, were brought into NATO in 1999; and 2004 witnessed an even richer harvest of former satellites of the USSR: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, all either near to or bordering on Russia. Then came the Bucharest Summit Declaration of April 2008: Georgia and Ukraine, the NATO heads of state announced, would be given the opportunity to apply for membership at some future date. If you want to know why Putin and his advisers might have considered this a security concern for Russia, look at a map.

Counterfeit Solidarity

The United States has supported Ukraine with copious donations of weapons, troop-trainers, and logistical and technical advisers left to work the interoperable targeting equipment we “share” with that country. Between 2014 and 2022, NATO drilled at least 10,000 Ukrainian troops per year in advanced methods of warfare. In the war itself, weapons supplies have climbed steadily from Stinger and Javelin missiles to Abrams tanks (whose greenhouse-gas environmental footprint is 0.6 miles per gallon of gas, or 300 gallons every eight hours of use), to cluster bombs, and most recently the promise of F-16s.

All this has put fresh wind in the sails of the weapons manufacturers of the American military-industrial-congressional complex. In May 2022, the CEO of Lockheed Martin thanked President Biden personally for his kindness. F-16s, after all, are big money-makers. As for the additional fuel that ordinary Ukrainians require, it is now being sequestered underground by Ukrainian commodities traders at enormous environmental risk.

Wars and their escalation — the mass destruction of human life that is almost invariably accompanied by destruction of the natural world — happen because preparations for war bring leaders ever closer to the brink. So close, in fact, that it feels natural to go on. That was certainly the case with Russia, Ukraine, and NATO, and the escalation that followed. Examples of such escalation are indeed the rule, not the exception in time of war.

Think of the invention, testing, and strategic planning that led to the dropping of the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. In Jon Else’s extraordinary documentary The Day After Trinity, the physicist Freeman Dyson offered a sober analysis of the momentum driving the decision to use the bomb:

“Why did the bomb get dropped on people at Hiroshima? I would say: it’s almost inevitable that it would have happened — simply because all the bureaucratic apparatus existed by that time to do it. The air force was ready and waiting. There had been prepared big airfields in the island of Tinian in the Pacific from which you could operate. The whole machinery was ready.”

In the same sense, all the apparatus was in place for the war in Ukraine. Joe Biden, a conventional cold warrior, has always had a temperament rather like that of President Harry Truman. The Biden of 2023, like the Truman of 1945, comes across as impulsive, not deliberate. He likes to pop off, thinks he is appreciated for taking risks, and fancies himself particularly good under pressure. This state of mind partly accounts for his decision to label Vladimir Putin a “war criminal”: never mind that such a description would apply with equal truth to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for launching the invasion of Iraq in 2003 — a war that Biden, as chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, supported unreservedly. His insistence that “this man [Putin] cannot remain in power for god’s sake” and his belief (as of mid-July 2023) that “Putin has already lost the war” exhibit the same pattern of effusive moralism accompanied by a denial of inconvenient facts.  

A different perspective was offered by Anatol Lieven at the Responsible Statecraft website:

“We are repeatedly told that the war in Ukraine is a war to defend democracy and help secure it across the world. Our American, French and British ancestors (and even the Russians, from March to October 1917) were also told the same about the Allied side in the First World War. It did not quite work out that way, and nothing guarantees that it will happen that way in Ukraine.”

In the case of Ukraine, such false hopes have been pushed far more freely by the media than by the military. War is a drug, and they have chosen to be the dealers. 

The Media Airbrush

War propaganda can be delivered in picturesque as well as popular ways. A prime example of the former approach was Roger Cohen’s August 6th front-page New York Times story, “Putin’s Forever War,” based on a recent visit. (“I spent a month in Russia.”) The apologetic intent here is underscored in the headline, which picks up an epithet once applied to the disastrous American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and slyly transfers it to Russia. The coverage is all in the same key, over six full pages of the paper Times, bulked out with color photographs of cheerleaders, churches, dank stairways, military processions, statues, tombs, and models on a fashion shoot.

From the start, Cohen adopts the voice of a prophetic observer of a new war, even as he makes it sound a good deal like the old war with the Soviet Union. “Along the way,” he writes,

“I encountered fear and fervid bellicosity, as well as stubborn patience to see out a long war. I found that Homo sovieticus, far from dying out, has lived on in modified form, along with habits of subservience. So with the aid of relentless propaganda on state television, the old Putin playbook — money, mythmaking and menace of murder — has just about held.”

The name Putin appears with great regularity as the article proceeds, doing extra duty for the historical analysis and exposition that are mostly absent.

“I first visited Moscow,” writes Cohen, “four decades ago, when it was a city devoid of primary colors eking out existence in the penury of Communism.” But Moscow has changed and the reason is Putin: “He opened Russia, only to slam it shut to the West; he also modernized it, while leaving the thread to Russia’s past unbroken.” So here, as in many Western accounts, the problem turns out to be not just Putin but the fact that he embodies a backward, naturally vengeful, country and its irretrievable past. The people of Russia are lost and — a few courageous dissidents excepted — they are given over to primitivism, hopeless nostalgia, and of course aggression. Putin is their epitome.

He “governs from the shadows” — no point in skipping the vampire trope — “unlike Stalin, whose portrait was everywhere. There is no cult of the leader of the kind Fascist systems favored. Yet mystery has its own magnetism. The reach of Mr. Putin’s power touches all.” There is, in other words, a cult of personality without either the personality or the display that belong to such a cult: “Putinism is a postmodern compilation of contradictions. It combines mawkish Soviet nostalgia with Mafia capitalism, devotion to the Orthodox Church with the spread of broken families.” It did not take a month in Russia to write those sentences. A day at the New York Times would have sufficed.

The former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev finally emerges as the hero of this story. Nowhere quoted, however, is the Gorbachev who, between 2004 and 2018, contributed eight op-eds to the New York Times, the sixth of which focused on climate change and the eighth on the perilous renewal of a nuclear arms race. Gorbachev was deeply troubled by George W. Bush’s decision to withdraw from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty (which Putin called a “mistake”) and Donald Trump’s similar decision to pull out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Does anyone doubt that Gorbachev would have been equally disturbed by the Biden administration’s virtual severance of diplomatic relations with Russia?

In an October 25, 2018, op-ed, Gorbachev summed up the American tendency throughout the preceding two decades: “The United States has in effect taken the initiative in destroying the entire system of international treaties and accords that served as the underlying foundation for peace and security following World War II.” Notice that the bellicose American “initiative” began well before the ascent of Vladimir Putin and, according to Gorbachev, it possessed — like the expansion of NATO — a dynamism that operated independently of developments inside Russia.

Return to Earth

The major news of the summer, besides the apparent lack of success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, has been Russia’s sudden cancellation of the Black Sea grain deal — a decision prompted in some measure by a July 17th Ukrainian drone attack on the Kerch Bridge. This is the bridge that has served to connect Russia to Crimea, after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014; and the drone strike was part of a  continuing Ukrainian-NATO effort to undermine — by sanctions, among other means — Russia’s export of its own grain. A typical Western media report about these developments in the Washington Post declined to associate the two events; as if the Ukrainian attack had occurred by coincidence just “hours before” the Russian termination of the deal and its own attacks on Ukrainian grain storage facilities. The events are referred to as “twin developments,” and that is all.

In a recent article at TomDispatch, Michael Klare recalled the public shame that never properly attached to U.S. energy companies for “choosing to perpetuate practices known to accelerate climate change and global devastation. Among the most egregious, the decision of top executives of the ExxonMobil Corporation — the world’s largest and wealthiest privately-owned oil company — to continue pumping oil and gas for endless decades after their scientists warned them about the risks of global warming.”  

Such environmental indifference, as Klare rightly notes, persisted long after the reality of climate disruption was recognized by the polluters. No less irresponsible has been the choice to perpetuate the war habit even as we recognize the inseparable role wars have always played in the destruction of the planet. The Ukraine war was launched by Russia in an exertion of brutal short-term opportunism, but it was also provoked by the United States as one of a long series of wars and regime-change operations that were meant to give the U.S. uncontested leadership of a unipolar world.

All of us now inhabit a war planet threatened in other devastating ways as well. Our escape will not be achieved through a new “norms-based” international order in which NATO, with the U.S. at the helm, replaces the United Nations as the global authority presiding over war and peace. The “next war on the horizon,” whether in the Baltic Sea, the Persian Gulf, or Taiwan, is a matter of grave interest to the citizens on all those horizons who may want anything but to serve as its field of exercise. Meanwhile, the lesson for the United States should be simple enough: the survival of the planet cannot wait for the world’s last superpower to complete our endless business of war.


That other War: Struggle and Suffering in Sudan Fri, 28 Jul 2023 04:02:47 +0000 By and

It’s been devastating, even if no one’s paying attention.

Three months of fighting in Sudan between the army and a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Force (RSF) has left at least 3,000 people dead and wounded at least 6,000 more. Over two million people have been displaced within the country, while another 700,000 have fled to neighboring nations. According to the World Health Organization, two-thirds of the health facilities in Khartoum, the capital, and other combat zones are now out of service, so the numbers of dead and injured are believed to be far higher than recorded, and bodies have been rotting for days in the streets of the capital, as well as in the towns and villages of the Darfur region.

Almost all foreign nationals, including diplomats and embassy staff, are long gone and so, according to Al Jazeera, hundreds or thousands of Sudanese who had visa applications pending have instead found themselves marooned in the crossfire with their passports locked away inside now-abandoned embassies. In the Darfur region, according to non-Arab tribal leaders, the RSF and local Arab militias have been carrying out mass killings, raping women and girls, and looting and burning homes and hospitals. Earlier this month, United Nations humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths told the Associated Press, “If I were Sudanese, I’d find it hard to imagine that this isn’t a civil war… of the most brutal kind.”

According to the United Nations, half the country’s population, a record 25 million people, is now in need of humanitarian aid. And worse yet, half of those are children, many of whom were in dire need even before this war broke out. Tragically, global warming will only compound their misery. Among 185 nations ranked by the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative, Sudan is considered the sixth most susceptible to harm from climate change.

Heat waves, drought, and flooding are projected to become ever more frequent and intense as the atmosphere above Sudan warms further. This summer war and weather have been converging in strikingly deadly ways. With cloudless skies, water and electricity services largely knocked out, and daily temperature highs in the capital recently ranging from 109° to 111° Fahrenheit, the misery is only intensifying. Meanwhile, in the Darfur region and across the border in eastern Chad, the season of torrential rains is about to begin. The country director for Concern Worldwide in Chad says that many of the quarter-million Sudanese refugees there “are living in makeshift tents made from sticks and any material they can find, which means they are not protected from the heavy rains. The situation is catastrophic.”

This Conflict Will Not Be Televised

Among the refugees from this war are some of our own relatives and in-laws, part of an extended Indian-Sudanese family who have lived in Khartoum all their lives. In May, they fled the escalating violence, some via a perilous, hair-raising 500-mile road trip across the Nubian Desert to Port Sudan. There, they caught a ship across the Red Sea to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Their goal, as they informed us in June through voice messages, was Egypt — so far, the most common destination for Sudanese refugees over the past three months. And mind you, desperate as they may be, our relatives are in a far less perilous situation than people fleeing the Darfur region for Chad. Still, they are leaving behind a life built up over decades, without knowing if they will ever be able to return to Khartoum.

And here — for us — is a disturbing reality. We’ve had to do a lot of searching to find significant information in the U.S. major media about the struggle in Sudan, no less the plight of its refugees — though recently there were finally substantive reports at NPR and in the Washington Post. Still, the contrast with 16 months of breathless, daily, top-of-the-hour reporting on the Ukraine war and the millions of people it’s displaced has been striking indeed.

There’s a major difference as well between Washington’s responses to each of those wars. Before the fighting broke out in Sudan, the country had about 30% fewer people living in need of humanitarian assistance than Ukraine. Now, it has almost 50% more than Ukraine. Given those relative needs, U.S. humanitarian aid to Sudan in Fiscal Year 2023 ($536 million) was not all that skimpy compared with the humanitarian aid going to Ukraine ($605 million). — not, at least, until you add in the $49 billion in military aid Washington has been sending to Kyiv — 80 times the civilian aid, to which has only recently been added fundamentally anti-humanitarian cluster bombs. In the past year, in other words, Ukraine got 13% more humanitarian aid than Sudan but 93 times more total aid when you count war assistance.

And the U.S. is not alone. The entire world is lagging badly in its response to the humanitarian tragedy in Sudan. William Carter of the Norwegian Refugee Council recently lamented, “I haven’t seen it treated with urgency. It’s not ignorance; it’s a case of apathy.” Admittedly, conditions in Sudan and Chad make aid delivery difficult now, but Western powers, Carter pointed out, are simply “not willing to stick their necks out.”

Sidelining Civilians, Coddling Generals

Washington has assisted Ukraine massively since the war there began. In contrast, its actions in the months leading up to Sudan’s current conflict were not only ineffective but may even have made war more likely.

Some background: Four years ago, a popular uprising overthrew the country’s longtime autocratic president, Omar al-Bashir. A Sovereignty Council was formed to negotiate a transition to democracy. Susan Page, who served as the first U.S. ambassador to the Republic of South Sudan, has written that the council’s designation as a “civilian-led transitional government” was “always a bit of a fig leaf,” given that its membership included more military officials than civilians. The transition was even led by military officials, including the two men who command the forces now locked in battle, Sudanese army chief General Abdel-Fattah Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan, who leads the RSF paramilitary group.

After two years of obstructing the work of the Sovereignty Council, that odd duo joined forces in an October 2021 coup and took control of Sudan. The negotiations over a democratic transition, mediated by the United States, Great Britain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia nonetheless went on for another 18 months, while those generals continued to stonewall. According to Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, the generals even stooped to outright extortion, hinting that if they didn’t get full backing from the West, they’d create a fresh migration crisis in Europe by kicking out hundreds of thousands of their fellow Sudanese and sending them northward. Still, last February, with military-civilian negotiations bogged down, Coons remained hopeful, writing,

“The Sudanese people… are not backing down in the defense of their political gains. Even in the face of persistent killings, sexual violence, and arrests by the regime, a massive, nationwide pro-democracy movement has for months maintained nonviolent street protests. The determination these thousands of people have shown as they risk their lives against heavily armed security forces should serve as a reminder the world over of how precious democracy truly is.”

Coons urged the Biden administration to throw its weight behind the pro-democracy movement, with sanctions that would hit the military leaders hard while sparing civil society: “A modern, comprehensive set of sanctions on the coup leaders and their networks,” he wrote, “will disrupt the military’s revenue streams and their grip on power, creating an opening for the nation’s nascent democracy movement to grow.” As is now painfully obvious, Biden didn’t take Coons’s advice and, six weeks later, the shooting started.

In an article published soon after the outbreak of fighting, Edward Wong and three colleagues at the New York Times reported that some of the people who played a part in the negotiations told them “the Biden administration, rather than empowering civilian leaders, prioritized working with the two rival generals,” even after they’d seized power in that coup. A high-level government adviser assured the Times that senior American diplomats “made the mistake of coddling the generals, accepting their irrational demands, and treating them as natural political actors. This fed their lust for power and their illusion of legitimacy.”

“A Critical Puzzle Piece”

The broad lack of concern for the Sudanese people in the U.S. and other rich countries also contrasts sharply with the intense geopolitical interest in Sudan of certain regional powers. Mohammad Salami of the International Institute for Global Strategic Analysis observes that Washington’s Persian Gulf allies have big plans for Sudan, thanks to its strategically important Red Sea coastline, its wealth in mineral resources, and its potential for tourism and agricultural production. (We can’t help wondering if they’re taking into account the degree to which its farming may, in the future, be clobbered by climate change.) Looking ahead, Salami writes, “The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have long-term plans for Africa, and for Sudan as their gateway to it.” 

Until the recent chaos began, Sudan had also been a gateway for refugees from Asia, the Middle East, and other parts of Africa. Writing less than three weeks into the Sudan conflict, MSNBC columnist Nayyera Haq observed that many of the people then fleeing the country were, in fact, repeat refugees, having fled previous conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Myanmar, among other places. As Western diplomats and embassy staff across Khartoum rushed for the exits (echoes of Kabul and Kandahar two summers ago!), Haq concluded,

“Sudan, once considered a far-off nation, is now a critical puzzle piece in this era of great power competition among global economies. As boundaries continue to blur because of technology and climate change, forced migration is more common: millions flee north from Latin America to the U.S., from Syria to Europe, and now across East Africa. But the same countries eager to extract oil and minerals from Africa are quick to shut down, only watching out for their own as Sudan devolves into chaos.”

Sudan is indeed rich in mineral resources that span the alphabet: aluminum, chromium, cobalt, iron, manganese, nickel, rare earths, silver, and zinc. All of those are important to the world’s renewable energy and battery industries. But Sudan’s biggest source of wealth lies in its gold deposits. The gold-mining industry is largely owned by a Russian-Sudanese joint venture headquartered in the northeast of the country. The wealth it’s generated hasn’t benefited the Sudanese people. Before the recent chaos, in fact, it was being split by the military regime, the Russian government, and none other than the infamous warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, which had been managing the joint venture’s gold-mining and processing operations since 2017. And Wagner being Wagner, they also have now taken sides in Sudan’s war, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, by providing surface-to-air missiles to the RSF paramilitary forces.

Unworthy Victims

The paucity of attention paid to civilian victims of the conflict in Sudan compared to Ukrainian civilians brings to mind the contrast between “worthy” and “unworthy” victims drawn by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent. They contrasted the extensive mass-media coverage of the 1984 murder of a Polish priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, during the Cold War with the lack of the same when it came to more than two dozen priests and other religious people slaughtered by governments and death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala in those years., Having been murdered by agents of a Communist government. Popieluszko was regarded as worthy of attention in the American media of the time, while his counterparts slaughtered by Central American governments allied with the U.S. weren’t. In a similar fashion, white Europeans now being killed, wounded, or rendered homeless by Russian troops are victims worthy of media attention, while Sudanese facing similar fates aren’t.

To be fair, a previous horrific conflict that gripped Sudan’s Darfur region from 2003 to 2008 did receive significant coverage in the Western media thanks to a convergence of unusual circumstances. The chief among them: the massive attention it received from celebrities of the time, including Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Lady Gaga, and Mia Farrow. Sudan’s media appeal of 15 years ago was, however, an exception to the rules of this world of ours. Today, such celebrities and the media seem to be gripped by a kind of compassion fatigue

Of course, like most Americans, we were paying no attention whatsoever to developments in Sudan before the fighting started — and before we learned that our own kinfolk were in danger. Now, what choice do we have but to keep up with the latest developments?

For weeks, our relatives were in limbo, trying to reach Egypt. Some were already in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but stuck there. Others had made it to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We were by then in touch and they acknowledged that they were “better off than most,” meaning they weren’t being pinned down in a deadly 110° war zone without passports, electricity, or running water, nor were they, like so many Sudanese, trapped in squalid refugee camps.

Only the other day, we finally learned that they had arrived safely in Egypt. Back in Khartoum they’d operated a small school, and they’re now hoping, if they can work their way through Cairo’s bureaucracy, that, as one of them put it, “Next year, Inshallah, we can start our school here, if we are still here and still war-driven.” Their futures have indeed been driven by war into a hard-to-imagine future. As one put it, “Nothing seems to be settling down in Sudan anytime soon.”    

Sadly, their assessment seems all too accurate. Since April, at least 10 ceasefires between the army and that paramilitary outfit have broken down more or less instantly. In mid-July, leaders of the six countries bordering Sudan met, in the impressive-sounding words of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, to formulate “an executive action plan to reach a comprehensive solution to the Sudanese crisis.”

Not so surprisingly, though, no such plan has yet emerged. Given its resources and its geographical centrality, an assortment of richer, stronger countries all want a piece of Sudan, but none of those plans include the war’s victims. To make matters worse, in this war (as in others to come), climate disruption will be a “threat multiplier.” Worse yet, as long as our media fails to see the Sudanese conflict or, more importantly, the Sudanese people as worthy of extensive reporting, the realities of the ongoing war there will continue to lie somewhere beyond the horizon.

The Hype of a Nuclear Power “Renaissance:” The Forever Dangers of Small Modular Reactors Wed, 19 Jul 2023 04:02:01 +0000 By

( – If you didn’t know better, you’d think Lloyd Marbet was a dairy farmer or maybe a retired shop teacher. His beard is thick, soft, and gray, his hair pulled back in a small ponytail. In his mid-seventies, he still towers over nearly everyone. His handshake is firm, but there’s nothing menacing about him. He lumbers around like a wise, old hobbling tortoise.

We’re standing in the deco lobby of the historic Kiggins Theater in downtown Vancouver, Washington, about to view a screening of Atomic Bamboozle, a remarkable new documentary by filmmaker Jan Haaken that examines the latest push for atomic power and a nuclear “renaissance” in the Pacific Northwest. Lloyd, a Vietnam veteran, is something of an environmental folk hero in these parts, having led the early 1990s effort to shut down Oregon’s infamous Trojan Nuclear Plant. He’s also one of the unassuming stars of a film that highlights his critical role in that successful Trojan takedown and his continued opposition to nuclear technology.

I’ve always considered Lloyd an optimist, but this evening I sense a bit of trepidation.

“It concerns me greatly that this fight isn’t over yet,” he tells me in his deep baritone. He’s been at this for years and now helps direct the Oregon Conservancy Foundation, which promotes renewable energy, even as he continues to oppose nuclear power. “We learned a lot from Trojan, but that was a long time ago and this is a new era, and many people aren’t aware of the history of nuclear power and the anti-nuclear movement.”

The new push for atomic energy in the Pacific Northwest isn’t just coming from the well-funded nuclear industry, their boosters at the Department of Energy, or billionaires like Bill Gates. It’s also echoing in the mainstream environmental movement among those who increasingly view the technology as a potential climate savior.

In a recent interview with ABC News, Bill Gates couldn’t have been more candid about why he’s embraced the technology of so-called small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs. “Nuclear energy, if we do it right, will help us solve our climate goals,” he claimed. As it happens, he’s also invested heavily in an “advanced” nuclear power start-up company, TerraPower, based up in Bellevue, Washington, which is hoping to build a small 345-megawatt atomic power reactor in rural Kemmerer, Wyoming.

The nuclear industry is banking on a revival and placing its bets on SMRs like those proposed by the Portland, Oregon-based NuScale Power Corporation, whose novel 60-megawatt SMR design was approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2022. While the underlying physics is the same as all nuclear power plants, SMRs are easier to build and safer to run than the previous generation of nuclear facilities — or so go the claims of those looking to profit from them.

NuScale’s design acceptance was a first in this country where 21 SMRs are now in the development stage. Such facilities are being billed as innovative alternatives to the hulking commercial reactors that average one gigawatt of power output per year and take decades and billions of dollars to construct. If SMRs can be brought online quickly, their sponsors claim, they will help mitigate carbon emissions because nuclear power is a zero-emissions energy source.

Never mind that it’s not, since nuclear power plants produce significant greenhouse gas emissions from uranium mining to plant construction to waste disposal. Life cycle analyses of carbon emissions from different energy sources find that, when every stage is taken into account, nuclear energy actually has a carbon footprint similar to, if not larger than, natural gas plants, almost double that of wind energy, and significantly more than solar power.

“SMRs are no longer an abstract concept,” Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Kathryn Huff, a leading nuclear advocate who has the ear of the Biden administration, insisted. “They are real and they are ready for deployment thanks to the hard work of NuScale, the university community, our national labs, industry partners, and the NRC. This is innovation at its finest and we are just getting started here in the U.S.!”

A Risky (and Expensive) Business

Even though Huff claims that SMRs are “ready for deployment,” that’s hardly the case. NuScale’s initial SMR design, under development in Idaho, won’t actually be operable until at least 2029 after clearing more NRC regulatory hurdles. The scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are already calling for fossil-fuel use to be cut by two-thirds over the next 10 years to transition away from carbon-intensive energy, a schedule that, if kept, such small reactors won’t be able to speed up.

And keep in mind that the seemingly prohibitive costs of the SMRs are a distinct problem. NuScale’s original estimate of $55-$58 per megawatt-hour for a proposed project in Utah — already higher than wind and solar which come in at around $50 per megawatt-hour — has recently skyrocketed to $89 per megawatt-hour. And that’s after a $4 billion investment in such energy by U.S. taxpayers, which will cover 43% of the cost of the construction of such plants. This is based on strikingly rosy, if not unrealistic, projections. After all, nuclear power in the U.S. currently averages around $373 per megawatt-hour.

And as the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis put it:

“[N]o one should fool themselves into believing this will be the last cost increase for the NuScale/UAMPS SMR. The project still needs to go through additional design, licensing by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, construction, and pre-operational testing. The experience of other reactors has repeatedly shown that further significant cost increases and substantial schedule delays should be anticipated at any stages of project development.”

Here in the Pacific Northwest, NuScale faces an additional obstacle that couldn’t be more important: What will it do with all the noxious waste such SMRs are certain to produce? In 1980, Oregon voters overwhelmingly passed Measure 7, a landmark ballot initiative that halted the construction of new nuclear power plants until the federal government established a permanent site to store spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste. Also included in Measure 7 was a provision that made all new Oregon nuclear plants subject to voter approval. Forty-three years later, no such repository for nuclear waste exists anywhere in the United States, which has prompted corporate lobbyists for the nuclear industry to push several bills that would essentially repeal that Oregon law.

NuScale, no fan of Measure 7, has decided to circumvent it by building its SMRs across the Columbia River in Washington, a state with fewer restrictions. There, Clark County is, in its own fashion, beckoning the industry by putting $200,000 into a feasibility study to see if SMRs could “benefit the region.” There’s another reason NuScale is eyeing the Columbia River corridor: its plants will need water. Like all commercial nuclear facilities, SMRs must be kept cool so they don’t overheat and melt down, creating little Chernobyls. In fact, being “light-water” reactors, the company’s SMRs will require a continuous water supply to operate correctly.

Like other nuclear reactors, SMRs will utilize fission to make heat, which in turn will be used to generate electricity. In the process, they will also produce a striking amount of waste, which may be even more challenging to deal with than the waste from traditional reactors. At the moment, NuScale hopes to store the nasty stuff alongside the gunk that the Trojan Nuclear Plant produces in big dry casks by the Columbia River in Oregon, near the Pacific Ocean.

As with all the waste housed at various nuclear sites nationwide, Trojan’s casks are anything but a permanent solution to the problem of such waste. After all, plutonium garbage will be radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Typically enough, even though it’s no longer operating, Trojan still remains a significant risk as it sits near the Cascadia Subduction Zone, where a “megathrust” earthquake is expected someday to violently shake the region and drown it in a gigantic flood of seawater. If that were to happen, much of Oregon’s coastline would be devastated, including the casks holding Trojan’s deadly rubbish. The last big quake of this sort hit the area more than 300 years ago, but it’s just a matter of time before another Big One strikes — undoubtedly, while the radioactive waste in those dry casks is still life-threatening.

Nuclear expert M. V. Ramana, a soft-spoken but authoritative voice in Jan Haaken’s Atomic Bamboozle documentary, put it this way to me:

“The industry’s plans for SMR waste are no different from their plans for radioactive waste from older reactors, which is to say that they want to find some suitable location and a community that is willing to accept the risk of future contamination and bury the waste underground.

“But there is a catch [with SMR’s waste]. Some of these proposed SMR designs use fuel with materials that are chemically difficult to deal with. The sodium-cooled reactor design proposed by Bill Gates would have to figure out how to manage the sodium. Because sodium does not behave well in the presence of water and all repositories face the possibility of water seeping into them, the radioactive waste generated by such designs would have to be processed to remove the sodium. This is unlike the fleet of reactors [currently in operation].”

Other troubles exist, too, explains Ramana. One, in particular, is deeply concerning: the waste from SMRs, like the waste produced in all nuclear plants, could lead to the proliferation of yet more atomic weaponry.

Nuclear Hot Links

As the pro-military Atlantic Council explained in a 2019 report on the deep ties between nuclear power and nuclear weapons in this country:

“The civilian nuclear power sector plays a crucial role in supporting U.S. national security goals. The connectivity of the civilian and military nuclear value chain — including shared equipment, services, and human capital — has created a mutually reinforcing feedback loop, wherein a robust civilian nuclear industry supports the nuclear elements of the national security establishment.”

In fact, governments globally, from France to Pakistan, the United States to China, have a strategic incentive to keep tabs on their nuclear energy sectors, not just for potential accidents but because nuclear waste can be utilized in making nuclear weapons.

Spent fuel, or the waste that’s left over from the fission process, comes out scalding hot and highly radioactive. It must be quickly cooled in pools of water to avoid the possibility of a radioactive meltdown. Since the U.S. has no repository for spent fuel, all this waste has to stay put — first in pools for at least a year or more and then in dry casks where air must be constantly circulated to keep the spent fuel from causing mayhem.

The United States already has a troubling and complicated nuclear-waste problem, which worsens by the day. Annually, the U.S. produces 88,000 metric tons of spent fuel from its commercial nuclear reactors. With the present push to build more plants, including SMRs, spent fuel will only be on the rise. Worse yet, as Ramana points out, SMRs are going to produce more of this incendiary waste per unit of electricity because they will prove less efficient than larger reactors. And therein lies the problem, not just because the amount of radioactive waste the country doesn’t truly know how to deal with will increase, but because more waste means more fuel for nukes.

As Ramana explains:

“When uranium fuel is irradiated in a reactor, the uranium-238 isotope absorbs neutrons and [transmutes] into plutonium-239. This plutonium is in the spent fuel that is discharged by the reactor but can be separated from the rest of the uranium and other chemicals in the irradiated fuel through a chemical process called reprocessing. Once it is separated, plutonium can be used in nuclear weapons. Even though there are technical differences between different kinds of nuclear reactors, all reactors, including SMRs, can be used to make nuclear weapons materials… Any country that acquires a nuclear reactor automatically enhances its ability to make nuclear weapons. Whether it does so or not is a matter of choice.”

Ramana is concerned for good reason. France, as he points out, has Europe’s largest arsenal of nuclear warheads, and its atomic weapons industry is deeply tied to its “peaceful” nuclear energy production. “Without civilian nuclear energy there is no military use of this technology — and without military use there is no civilian nuclear energy,” admitted French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019. No surprise then, that France is investing billions in SMR technology. After all, many SMR designs require enriched uranium and plutonium to operate, and the facilities that produce materials for SMRs can also be reconfigured to produce fuel for nuclear weapons. Put another way, the more countries that possess this technology, the more that will have the ability to manufacture atomic bombs.

As the credits rolled on Atomic Bamboozle, I glanced around the packed theater. I instantly sensed the shock felt by movie-goers who had no idea nuclear power was priming for a comeback in the Northwest. Lloyd Marbet, arms crossed, was seated at the back of the theater, looking calmer than most. Still, I knew he was eager to lead the fight to stop SMRs from reaching the shores of the nearby Columbia River and would infuse a younger generation with a passion to resist the nuclear-industrial complex he’s been challenging for decades.

“Can you believe we’re fighting this shit all over again?” he asked me later with his usual sense of urgency and outrage. “We’ve beat them before and you can damn well bet we’ll do it again.”