Óscar Martínez: A History of Violence

Many years ago, in 1993 I visited the bombed out ruins of the town of Aguacayo,  the former ‘capital’ of the FMLN-held liberated zone in Guazapa Province during much of  El Salvador’s 12-year civil war.  It was just only one year after the guerrillas had disarmed in  the town  as a result of the implementation of the Chapultepec Peace Accords that brought the war to an end.  Even in peacetime, El Salvador was a rough place.   The country was plagued with criminal violence and awash with weaponry left over from the war, some of which were used to rob banks in commando-style raids.   There were bands of former guerrillas and members of the armed forces operating in parts of rural El Salvador.

The National Guard, the Treasury Police and the government-sponsored death squads were gone, and the army had been put on a leash, but violent death was still alarmingly common.  As I was walking through the countrysdie towards Aguacayo, I met a campesino who told me that a schoolteacher had just been shot on the same path a few days beforehand.  When I asked him why, he simply replied ‘porque sí’ – for the hell of it.

There were a lot of people being killed ‘porque sí’ in post-war El Salvador, and their numbers have continued to soar in the ensuing years.  Today an average of twenty-three people are murdered in El Salvador every day – 80 out of every 100,000 inhabitants in a tiny country with a population of 6.34 million.  Much of this staggering epidemic of violence is due to the prevalence of El Salvador’s huge gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18 and Mirada Lokotes 13, some of which were established in the United States during the war.

The interventions of Mexican drug gangs like Los Zetas, has added to the lethal mix, generating levels of violence and insecurity that make Europe’s ongoing terrorist emergency seem like a sideshow by comparison.  A similar cocktail of poverty, institutionalised corruption, gangs or ‘maras’ and the savage ‘primitive accumulation’ of the narcotrafficantes has ravaged other Central American countries, particularly Guatemala and Honduras.  These are societies supposedly at peace, with a per capita murder rate that blurs the distinctions between peace and war.

No one has described Central America’s tragic predicament more eloquently than the brilliant young Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez.   A contributor to the El Faro website, Martínez is a gifted storyteller and a remarkably courageous and intrepid investigative reporter.  His first book The Beast (Verso 2013) was a blistering masterpiece of investigative journalism which chronicled the desperate journeys undertaken by Central American migrants to reach the United States, using the Mexican train that migrants rightly call ‘ La Bestia‘ – the beast.

To tell the stories of these men and women, Martínez rode the trains with them, and walked with them through remote country backroads where migrants are routinely raped and murdered.  He visited country brothels and migrant safe houses and spoke to trafficked women and former migrant slaves.  Martínez described this bleak and terrifying world with skill, grace and humanity.

Now he has brought his formidable talents to bear in a new book which looks at the societies these migrants have tried to escape from.   A History of Violence:  Living and Dying in Central America (Verso 2016) is not an easy or comfortable book to read, and it is not intended to be give comfort.   With his customary forensic rigor, Martínez shines a light on the ongoing calamity unfolding in the region the United States likes to think of as its ‘backyard.’

Martínez ignores nothing and noone.  He speaks to bent and decent cops, to lawyers and soldiers, to narcos, gangsters and contract killers, to male and female gang members, to migrants and the  ‘coyotes’ or guides who help them reach their destinations.  He visits El Salvador’s brutal dystopian prisons, narcotowns in Guatemala’s remote Petén jungle, and the scenes of crimes and massacres.

None of this is macho danger zone posturing.  It is not intended to be salacious, sensational or entertaining.    Martínez has not gone to these places to brag or talk about himself, but to tell the stories of the men and women he meets.   His writing reminds me of Jason Stearns’s superb account of the wars in the Congo Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, in its ability to connect even the most horrendous individual stories with the wider political and socioeconomic context that makes them possible, and even logical.

This doesn’t mean that Martínez is a detached observer.   In his introduction he asks the question ‘ What can I propose to bring an end to these terrifying stories? ‘ before answering that ‘ Journalism only has one method of boring into reality, and it is the same method that the sea uses against the coast: the constant lapping of the waves, whether they are gentle or turbulent.’

Martínez suggests that his readers are an essential part of this process:

‘My proposal is that you know what is going on.  Because I believe that knowing, especially with people like yours, who know how to wield politics, is the beginning of a solution.   I believe, sticking with the metaphor of the sea and the rock, that knowing is what moves the waves.  You can be the waves. ‘

And to North American readers in particular, he has this reminder:

This book isn’t about Martians.  It doesn’t chronicle the tragic life stories of distant, faraway people living in the wilderness, without the Internet, eating nothing but millet.  It doesn’t discuss people you will never see up close or see only on the television.  This book is about the lives of people who cut your lawn and serve you coffee every morning.  It tells the stories of the people who cut your lawn and fix your plumbing.  These lives are very similar to the lives of about 6 million people living in your midst.  It tells the story of the more than 1,000 human beings who every day leave the three northern Central American countries to try to enter, without permission, the United States and other countries of the North.’

Last but not least, Martínez points out that ‘the broken puppet that we are as a region was mostly armed by American politicians’.  As a consequence:

‘ Our society is a cauldron of oppressive military governance, the result of a failed peace process.  We’re living with government corruption and incompetent politicians.  We are living with violence, with death always close at hand: in a traffic accident, a soccer brawl, or in defense of our families.  We are ignorant of peace.  We haven’t had the chance to get to know it.’

No one who reads this terrifying book can remain ignorant of these consequences, and the conclusions that Martínez has drawn from it are not only relevant to Central America.   Martínez takes as an epigraph a quotation from the martyrd Archbishop Óscar Romero, that ‘ Violence will keep changing in name, but violence will always remain as long as there’s no change at the root, from where all these horrible things are sprouting.’

That observation applies to many parts of the world, and the search for solutions begins with a willingness to acknowledge the kind of world we have, rather than the one we think we have.   All of which is one more reason to read this tragic but essential book from one of the most courageous and brilliant reporters working in the world today.

The Atrocity Factory

At first sight, keep calm and carry on might seem like a rather banal piece of advice, faced with the seemingly endless and unstoppable conveyor belt of atrocities that is unfolding before us on a weekly and almost daily basis..  In Baghdad, Kabul and Istanbul, in Florida, Nice and Germany,  the most toxic and poisonous hatreds course feverishly through a world that is increasingly saturated with violence.

Shoppers being blown to bits in a Baghdad shopping mall; gay and lesbian clubbers; children watching fireworks; disabled residents of a care home; teenagers going to a music concert – all these victims have been selected as targets by mostly young men seeking to piggy-back their way to 15 minutes of notoriety on the bodies of men, women and children whose lives they have callously extinguished.

Open the paper one day and you can see the  grinning ‘militants’ of the US-backed Syrian rebel group Nour al-Din al-Zenki happily posing for a photograph as they prepare to cut off the head of a supposed Palestinian child soldier.  Now a baby-faced ‘lone wolf’ who was apparently ‘inspired’ by Daesh has cut off the head of an 84-year-old priest in France in a vicious act of sacrilegious murder that he still had time to film and presumably upload before he was predictably shot – because without a decent video to leave as your legacy, what’s the point, after all, of killing and being shot.

The perpetrators vary in their motives but their profile is often depressingly similar regardless of their ideology – assuming they even have one.   Some are victim-narcissists, Travis Bickle types torn between hatred and self-pity, seeking a few minutes of homicidal power and glory that adds meaning to otherwise pathetic and meaningless lives in which they have done nothing good or even aspired towards goodness.

Some of them want to kill immigrants because they were bullied.  Others want to kill gays because they’re gay.  Some of them are mentally ill.  Some are entirely ‘normal’.   Many of them – as I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone – think that God will be pleased with. They shout God is great and might actually be stupid or deluded enough to believe that a God with any greatness or benevolence could ever sanction their absurd and  freakish acts of savagery.

Some of them may really believe that murdering defenceless and unsuspecting people going about their peaceful daily business guarantees them a place in paradise. They boast that they love death more than we love life, when they lacked the courage to live in the first place and valued their own lives as little as they valued the lives of others.

Whatever their motivations, their crimes diminish us all.  They drag the name of humanity into the gutter.  They challenge the very idea that human beings are worth saving.  Their crimes call into question the image of (wo)mankind evoked by Hamlet ‘ how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.’

We know that there is nothing noble, angelic or godlike about this procession of murderers and assassins, and their stubborn persistence  in our century reminds us how far we still have to travel to live up to the best expectations of our species, and the best of our common traditions, both religious and secular.

Now, in this vicious summer of blood, it’s easy to feel that we are all passengers in a speeding train being driven by a madman.  It’s tempting to feel demoralised and even crushed by this catalogue of jawdropping horrors that we are constantly obliged to gape at.

In times like these, one can feel that everyday life is impossible and even shameful, that words have no power or meaning, that politics is no longer a vehicle for the common good, that the future is dark and getting worse, that utopia or even a better world is impossible and that perhaps we’re already living in dystopia.

In the case of Daesh/Isis, it’s also tempting to respond to the deliberate malice and vindictiveness with an equally vindictive response, to seek safety, security and revenge in Trumplike walls; in wars and states of emergency; in visceral fantasies of vetting and repressing and even expelling immigrants and Muslim immigrants – as if Muslims weren’t themselves victims of these evil acts in far greater numbers than white Europeans.

Our politicians promise more wars – as if the wars we have already waged so disastrously have not been instrumental in creating the conditions for the nightmare that is now unfolding.  We hear that we must balance civil and human  rights against security, usually in order to tilt the balance in favour of the latter.

We would do well to resist these temptations.  Daesh may be a political and moral monstrosity, but it is a monstrosity with a very clear set of strategies, which vary from country to country.   In general these objectives are very clear:

  • to generate hatred, conflict and division through deliberate atrocity
  • to demoralise and destabilise Europe and create the conditions for the generalised persecution of European Muslims and an era of endless war in the Middle East
  •  to turn the continent against Muslim refugees in the hope that these refugees will turn back to Daesh.
  • to demonstrate a global presence and an implacable power that will compensate for its military reverses

To achieve these objectives, Daesh would like us to believe that everyday life is impossible, that we can’t be safe anywhere, and that its legions of depressed, marginalized and sometimes mentally-ill murderers represent the vanguard of the Caliphate’s army in a new religious war.

And it’s precisely because these goals are so crude, blatant and clearcut that we mustn’t allow Daesh and its cohorts to fulfill them.  If we want to be democracies, then we should not allow ourselves to be tempted by authoritarian pseudo-solutions to terrorism.  If we want to have open, tolerant societies that uphold civil and human rights then we should remain tolerant and open and continue to uphold and celebrate those rights.

If we want a common European home where men and women of different races, cultures and religions can coexist and prosper together, then we must continue to believe in that possibility and work towards it, no matter how many times Daesh kills and bombs.   Because in the end, a movement that can produce only murderers has no future except the one that we give it.

Historically, the essential aim of non-state terrorism, regardless of its aims or ideology,  is to lure its more powerful opponent into an over-reaction.  Daesh is no exception.  Here in Europe, it’s using atrocity as an instrument of political and social engineering with a ferocity and ruthlessness that no previous organization has ever achieved.

Yet now more than ever, it’s essential that a fragile and fractious continent that is already seething with dangerous political forces doesn’t allow itself to be terrorised into becoming something monstrous.

And one way – perhaps the only way – to ensure that outcome,,  is do what we can to protect ourselves, to hold onto our best traditions not reach towards our worst,  and  keep calm and carry on.

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Boris Johnson’s Big Day Out

Politically speaking, schadenfreude tends to be a consolatory emotion, whose pleasures are generally ephemeral and often sharpened by defeat.   Even so the humiliation of Boris John last week was worth the price of admission.     I’m referring, of course, to the car crash press conference in which Johnson appeared alongside John Kerry and found himself subject to some very sharp and hostile questioning that he clearly didn’t anticipate.

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The questions included gems like the following:

‘You’ve accused the current U.S. president, Barack Obama, of harboring a part-Kenyan’s ‘ancestral dislike for the British empire’ while claiming, I think, untruthfully at the time that he didn’t want a Churchill bust in the White House. You’ve described a possible future U.S. president, Hillary Clinton, as someone with “dyed-blonde hair and pouty lips, and steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.’ You’ve also likened her to Lady Macbeth. Do you take these comments back or do you want to take them with you to your new job as some sort of indicator of the type of diplomacy you will practice?’

And this:

‘You have an unusually long history of wild exaggerations and, frankly, outright lies that, I think, few foreign secretaries have prior to this job. And, I’m wondering, how Mr. Kerry and others should believe what you say considering this very, very long history? ‘     

Such interrogations don’t appear to be common amongst the US press corps when referring to their own politicians, let alone representatives of Her Majesty’s government, and Johnson hasn’t experienced many of them from British journalists either.   For some mysterious  reason, most journalists who interview Johnson seem to break out into smiles and giggles in his presence, as though some quaint and endlessly amusing and endearing toddler had just come bouncing into the room wearing a ‘where the wild things are’ playsuit.

It’s weird and – to me at least – inexplicable how often this has happened, and how rarely Johnson has ever been called out for anything he’s ever said or done.  Admittedly it’s not easy dealing with a politician like this, who doesn’t seem to care what he actually says beyond its immediate usefulness to him.  When Alex Salmond called him out for drawing dishonest and inaccurate conclusions from a paper that he’d never read, Johnson just tossed his blonde tousled locks and grinned sheepishly.

Because after all, why should Johnson have to actually read something that he’s inaccurately quoting, and  it was awfully unfair and perhaps a little celtic and presbyterian of Sammers to come on all truthy and facty in what was just a bit of knockabout fun – using false arguments to advance his career whilst pretending to stand up to the European ‘dictatorship.’

Johnson clearly feels entitled to do things like this.  He sees himself as a national treasure and expects the nation to think the same, and too often -unfortunately for us – he’s been right..  The single exception was Eddie Maier’s velvety ‘ you’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you’ interrogation, but even then, accused of lying and trying to get someone beaten up, Johnson just grinned it out

Perhaps this cheekie chappie thing only works in England, because it clearly didn’t work for Johnson last week.  He looked and sounded shifty.  He exuded incompetence, self-regard, dishonesty, pretentiousness and bluster in equal measure.  One minute he was telling his audience:

“We can spend an awfully long time going over lots of stuff that I’ve written over the last 30 years … All of which, in my view, have been taken out of context, through what alchemy I do not know – somehow misconstrued that it would really take me too long to engage in a full global itinerary of apology to all concerned. “

Yep, it’s weird that suggesting that Barack Obama’s opposition to Brexit was due to some ancestral racial resentment of the British Empire can be ‘misconstrued’, isn’t it?  I don’t understand it at all.  But Johnson stuck with this line, declaring

“There is a rich thesaurus of things that I have said that have, one way or the other, I don’t know how, that has been misconstrued. Most people, when they read these things in their proper context, can see what was intended, and indeed virtually everyone I have met in this job understands that very well, particularly on the international scene.’

I suspect a lot of people on the ‘international scene’ are still struggling to understand how the hell someone like Johnson ever got appointed to his position.   Because that ‘rich thesaurus’ of lies, exaggerations and distortions does go back quite a way, to his stint in Brussels back in the early 90s, when his former colleague Martin Fletcher accused him of making up stories to pander to Tory Party xenophobes.

Even more pathetic than Johnson’s attempts to convince the assembled journalists that his remarks had been ‘misconstrued’ was his painfully inept stumbling towards the gravitas normally associated with the position of foreign secretary.   Even Philip Hammond managed to look the part – sort of. But Johnson doesn’t and can’t.   After all,   you probably don’t want a man who has accused the current president of Turkey of having sex with goats to be giving the British position on the Turkish coup and its aftermath, and the fact that Johnson confused Turkey with Egypt on two occasions during the press conference didn’t make it any better.

As he sternly reminded his audience:

‘We have very serious issues before us today we have an unfolding humanitarian crisis in Syria that is getting worse. We have a crisis in Yemen that is intractable and a burgeoning crisis on Egypt, and those are to my mind far more important than any obiter dicta you may have disinterred from 30 years of journalism.

Johnson is right about one thing: the world does have some very serious issues before it. But his press conference only revealed why he is so utterly and unforgiveably the wrong man to deal with them.   It’s not only that he’s a ‘post-truth’ politician for whom words are only ever ‘obiter dicta’ – remarks in passing, designed – in his mind at least – to be said and then forgotten.   It isn’t only that he’s a self-aggrandising clown with no moral compass, who will say anything to anyone in order to rise higher.

The problem with Johnson is this: removed from the protective embrace of a British audience that sees him as some kind of real person as opposed to robotic politicians we are used to, he is painfully and glaringly inadequate, incompetent and out of his depth.

That’s what Johnson looked like last week, and you can’t help feeling that a part of him knew it.   That’s why his public humiliation was much more than schadenfreude – it was the moment when one of the most disreputable frauds in British politics was revealed to the world to be… a disreputable fraud.   As Johnson might say ‘Mendacem memorem esse oportet’ – A liar needs a good memory.

He clearly doesn’t have one – or thinks he needs one. But last week, perhaps for the first time, he has discovered that other people do.  Let’s hope that it isn’t the last time.

 

 

 

 

Nice and the Spectacle of Terror

Yesterday evening I was driving to play a game of tennis and listening to the radio, when I heard the sounds of of screaming people being mown down by a truck in Nice.  I immediately turned it off.  This isn’t because I think I have some privileged right to ignore the escalating procession of horrors that is driving our fractured and ever-more deranged world ever closer towards catastrophe.

I don’t ignore these terrifying developments, and I would be stupid to do so.  But I don’t need to hear the sounds of children being murdered to know that what took place in Nice is utterly sad and tragic and yet another outrageous crime that disgraces the name of humanity.  And I know that the narcissistic murderers who perpetrate such horrors and the bloodthirsty morons who celebrate them want me to be watching and listening.

Like the psychopathic Tooth Fairy in Michael Mann’s Manhunter such men want an audience to ‘feel awe’ at their ability to transmit atrocity-spectacles through a mass media that thrives on such phenomena.  Both the man driving the truck and the so-called ‘Islamic State’ that has ‘claimed responsibility’ for Thursday’s act of mass slaughter have arrived in that peculiar moral wasteland inhabited by the great murderers and genociders of history, in which it is possible to kill anyone without mercy or restraint.

They see themselves as heroes and avengers.  I don’t.  They want me to feel afraid of their implacable ability to kill anywhere they like.  I just feel disgust, shame and sorrow that we belong to the same species.   No use calling them ‘beasts’ or ‘animals’, because animals don’t behave like this. These men are humans, even if the violence that they perpetuate is dependent on stripping its victims of any semblance of humanity.

We call such men ‘terrorists’ to establish some kind of moral distinction between us and them, and the use of the t-word immediately gives their actions a new moral and political significance, so that even the truck that Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel used as a weapon becomes a ‘terror truck’, as the Sun called it today.

Politicians fall back on the same tropes and rhetorical devices.  We hear that these attacks were aimed at ‘us’ – a first person plural that almost always refers to non-Muslims regardless of the fact that far greater numbers of Muslims than Westerners have been murdered by Daesh and groups like it.   Nearly two hundred Iraqis died in a single bombing in Baghdad the previous week, compared with 84 in Nice – yet as always, attacks on Westerners become a universal media event, which politicians depict as an attack on  our ‘values’ and ‘freedoms’ and our ‘way of life.’

Such depictions ignore the fact that Daesh has a very clear strategy – in its attacks on Westerners anyway – of using atrocity and mass murder to create an unbridgeable chasm between Muslims and non-Muslims in order to eliminate the ‘grey area’ and drive European Muslims in particular towards a dystopian slave state that is inexorably crumbling.

Nothing about freedom or values here – just cold ‘intensification of calamities’ reptilian political thinking of the type that the Russian terrorist Sergei Nechaev once bleakly delineated, whose implications and consequences we ignore at our peril.  Yet again and again we do ignore them, and allow others to reinterpret them.

Today I watched an American ‘security expert’ warning of the danger to France from Muslim ghettoes where the population only obeyed ‘Sharia law’ not French law.   Now there might be marginalized and de facto segregated areas where mostly Muslim populations live in a state of what we politely call ‘social exclusion’ – but I never heard or read any conclusive evidence that such populations live under ‘Sharia law.’

And of course we have a host of pundits informing us that we are ‘at war’ – another essential component of the terror-spectacle.   Well this is true in the sense that every atrocity in Europe is part of a continuum of violence that extends from European capitals to Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and even further afield.  But it is precisely the wars and interventions that we have waged so gratuitously over the last sixteen years that have created the context in which organizations like ISIS can thrive and present themselves as Islamic holy warriors in a global battlefield.

Had our governments not done this, had they responded to the 9/11 attacks with a measured, calibrated and patient law-enforcement driven response to al Qaeda we might not have been in the situation we are now in.   Had our governments not chosen to bomb and invade one Muslim country after another, we might have drained the crucial – however spurious – legitimacy that groups like AQ and its offshoots have drawn on to present their actions as defensive or reciprocal.

So many what ifs? And it would be an exaggeration to suggest that there would have been no problem or at all if these things had not happened, just as it is crude and simplistic to suggest that every act of mass murder perpetrated by Islamic extremists is some kind of ill-conceived response to Western foreign policy.   But the problem might not have been as all-pervasive as it is now, had our governments not launched themselves into the various ‘wars on terror’ to ‘make us safe’, which have made nobody safe at all – not over here or over there.

Despite these manifold failures, Marine Le Pen would like to ‘begin’ the ‘war’ against was ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ that according to her, hasn’t been fought yet.  How should it be fought?  She doesn’t say.  But others have been saying it for a long time. Forced assimilation; mass expulsions and deportations; turn their cities into car parks; European civil wars; ‘making life harder for Muslims across the board’ – we’ve all heard variants on what this ‘war’ might look like.

In the wake of the Nice attacks, Newt Gingrich has proposed that all American Muslims should be ‘tested’ to see if they believe in ‘Sharia law’ – and expelled if they do.  To me such notions are not only completely impractical – what does a drunk, wife-beating depressive and petty criminal who rarely went near a mosque have to do with ‘Sharia law’? – they have nothing to do with freedom or democracy and reek of incipient fascism.

Of course Daesh and its cohorts would love to see such ‘solutions’ implemented.  These groups don’t believe Muslims have any place in the West – a belief they share with the far right.  It’s safe to assume that they would be extremely happy with a full-blown program of persecution, deportations, and an outbreak of ethnic strife in either the United States or Europe.

For that reason alone, we shouldn’t want to give them that victory, though some clearly don’t care if we do.   There is no doubt that we face an extraordinarily complex and variegated terrorist emergency that is both local and global, whose provocations are designed – like those of so many of their predecessors in the grim history of terrorism – to provoke all-out confrontation and force supposedly democratic societies to reveal their ‘true’ repressive face.

We must resist that temptation, no matter what it takes.  We – Muslims and non-Muslims – must continue together the search for a world based on collective security and peaceful coexistence, on tolerance, justice and mutual respect.  Every atrocity, wherever it takes place, should galvanize us to renew this search not abandon it or conclude that it’s impossible to achieve, because if we stop that common search we are all lost, and the dregs of our species will win.

All governments have the obligation to protect their populations, but too many governments have used terrorist-spectacles as a justification for wars and interventions that have only increased the risks we face.  For this reason terrorism is too important to be left to politicians.   We need civil society to get on board. We need to deepen and widen democracy, not curtail it.   We need to think very clearly, honestly and precisely about who our enemies are and what motivates them .   In the age of the internet and social media, we may never be able to stop marginalised and narcissistic men from seeking redemption and notoriety through poisonous mythologies of grandiose violence.

But no matter how many terror-spectacles they perpetrate, no matter how many times they brag that they love death more than we love life, we must pick up the pieces afterwards and mourn those whose lives have been shattered and cut short.

And then we must forwards together towards our common future with as much serenity and conviction as we can muster, and  continue the search for a world in which these suicide-cum-mass murderers will never be able to see themselves as heroes, and will be treated with universal contempt.