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Burning Qurans and Burning Empires: Afghanistan in Turmoil

By Dennis Loo (3/1/12)

Update: In today's New York Times (3/3/12) the paper writes about this incident, citing the conclusions of a joint commission of three Afghan security officers and an American official:

"the military personnel involved in making the decision to get rid of the Korans and those who carried out the order did not set out to defile the Muslim holy book.

“'There was no maliciousness, there was no deliberateness, there was not an intentional disrespect of Islam,' he said."

I wonder if the writer of this story, Alissa Rubin, and/or her editors, are aware that this distinction that the joint commission is trying to make is a distinction without a difference. If you have already made the decision to "get rid of the Korans" by burning them in a big pile of books (over 1200 confiscated holy books and other books, taken from the prisoners being held by the U.S.), then where does the lack of "deliberateness" even enter the picture? How is the fact that the actors in this drama might not have "intentionally" meant to disrespect Islam change the fact that they decided to "get rid of the books" in the first place and thereby showed their disrespect by their actions?

Let us consider this from the perspective of fundamentalist Christians: suppose it is they who are being held captive by Muslims who are an occupying army in a heavily Christian nation. The Muslim authorities find that some of their American Christian prisoners have made marginal notes in English in their Bibles, which their Muslim captors can't read, and the prison authorities suspect that these Christians may be actually passing notes to each other and "organizing." The Muslim captors confiscate the Bibles and other holy books and decide to burn them.

What would the response be of the other fundamentalist Christians in the occupied Christian nation? If one of those under occupation was a certain Rick Santorum, who nearly vomited when reading JFK's speech asserting the centrality of the separation between church and state, what would be his response, since he thinks that his holy book, the Bible, contains the literal words of God? What would all of the other fundamentalist Christians do who also think that the Bible consists of the literal words of God, just like their fellow Abrahambic Muslim bretheren who think that the Quaran contains the literal words of God? Would they not respond in a similar manner?

Would Santorum's near vomiting result in his being force fed by his Muslim captors to ensure that this prisoner, this terrorist, was not signaling to his fellow terrorists that he and they should carry out a protest/hunger strike?



On February 21 Afghan workers discovered that U.S. personnel had tossed at least four Qurans into the trash for incineration. Risking and enduring burns to their hands, the shocked workers rescued the burning Qurans. The public reaction has been swift, fierce and even more inflamed than the Qurans that were consigned to the trash. Nationwide riots have broken out, leaving more than 40 people killed, including two U.S. officials executed by a single shot to the back of their heads within their offices in the supposedly secure Interior Ministry.

On NPR’s Talk of the Nation last night the turmoil in Afghanistan was the topic. Why, an American solider caller who had served in Afghanistan wondered, do the Afghans eat up so eagerly any evidence of U.S. insensitivity to the Afghan people?

I mean, after all, it's not everyday that U.S. Marines deliberately urinate on Afghanis that they have just killed.

If the U.S. were the country being occupied by a foreign power, Americans would not be as eager to pounce on every sign that their occupiers were being arrogant about their occupation over us as are those ungrateful Afghanis.

No, Americans would be a most polite and understanding domesticated population, gracious hosts to our occupiers, who are here, after all, for our own good: to build our shattered nation-state and teach us how to rule ourselves. We would accept these new overlords as blessed saviors to our benighted selves and accept their random killings - including bombing attacks on wedding parties of Americans - and torture of American children, women, and men as the price we have to pay for being saved from ourselves.

Don’t you think?

What follows are excerpts from Globalization and the Demolition of Society that relate to this issue and beyond (Pp. 206-211). In it I discuss the foreign invasions and occupations by the US government and military and its logical domestic corollary in the erasure of the rule of law and due process, treating everyone as a "suspect," and ubiquitous surveillance. If you're going to carry out the supreme war crime abroad - attacking countries that have not first attacked you - then you must shore up your domestic base to suppress dissent and free assembly and speech or else you will not be able to carry out those foreign policies. Unjust and illegal foreign policies are and must be matched by unjust and illegal domestic policies:

“With regret,” the Russian official said [prior to the US invasion of Afghanistan], “I have to say that you’re really going to get the hell kicked out of you.”

Cofer Black, Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, responded: “We’re going to kill them,” he said. “We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.”[i] This kind of grotesque arrogance can explain much about why we are losing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it does not explain why the neocons wanted to invade Afghanistan and Iraq prior to 9/11 in the first place. It does not explain their outsourcing the pursuit of bin Laden and their willful exchanging of bin Laden as “Public Enemy Number One” with Saddam Hussein. Cultural myopia and arrogance can account for tactical blunders but they do not explain the overall strategy.

Bush and Cheney knew when they launched their campaign to parlay the anger and fear of Americans as a result of 9/11 into an invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein and Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.[ii] Bush and Cheney elected to go after Iraq under the signboard of the “War on Terror” knowing that al-Qaeda was elsewhere. Incompetence and cultural arrogance do not comprise the central reason for the bungling of this “War on Terror.” As [MIchael] Scheuer points out, Bush and Cheney (and for that matter Obama) need their putative enemy al-Qaeda just as much as al-Qaeda needs its foil in the US government.

The anti-terrorism measures employed by the White House are not just dramatically counter-productive; their anti-terror measures appear to be designed primarily to repress and control the US population and the people of other countries. As PBS’s 2007 Frontline show, “Spying on the Home Front” chronicled,

On New Year’s Eve weekend [2003] the FBI demanded records from all hotels, airlines, rental car agencies, casinos and other businesses on every person who visited Las Vegas in the run-up to the holiday. Stephen Sprouse and Kristin Douglas of Kansas City, Mo., object to being caught in the FBI dragnet in Las Vegas just because they happened to get married there at the wrong moment. Says Douglas, “I'm sure that the government does a lot of things that I don't know about, and I've always been OK with that -- until I found out that I was included.”A check of all 250,000 Las Vegas visitors against terrorist watch lists turned up no known terrorist suspects or associates of suspects.[iii]

Here is the problem with this event: If you were a terrorist planning a dramatic terrorist attack upon Las Vegas, would you register in a hotel or rent a car in your real name in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve? Would you not place some people in the Las Vegas area months or even years ahead of time and have them working and/or living in the town under pseudonyms? Does the FBI not realize this? Of course they do. That is why the unconstitutional demand for all of the names of all of the visitors to Las Vegas that weekend was in all probability a testto see if the FBI could obtain the compliance of Vegas businesses to their demands, and to set a precedent for future incursions into business and private records. As another segment in the Frontline show relates, Peter Swire, a law professor and former White House privacy adviser to President Clinton, tells FRONTLINE that since 9/11 the government has been moving away from the traditional legal standard of investigations based on individual suspicion to generalized suspicion. The new standard, Swire says, is: ‘Check everybody. Everybody is a suspect.’”[iv]

Bush openly mused while president that a dictatorship would be fine, as long as he was the dictator.[v] On May 9, 2007, with little fanfare and no protests from the Democratic Party, Bush issued two new presidential directives, the National Security Presidential Directive/NSPD 51[vi] and Homeland Security Presidential Directive/HSPD–20. These directives allow the president to decide on his own say-so when and if a national emergency has occurred, and they also give him the power to carry on governance absent a role for Congress or any other branch of government whatsoever. The Bush White House’s shocking actions and policies were not, however, an aberration. They were actually a continuation and acceleration at a higher level of policies begun in earnest under Reagan and carried forward with somewhat different attributes by Clinton.

Since taking office, Obama has retained the apparatus created by his predecessors and gone even further, insisting, for example, on a new principle his Department of Justice (DOJ) calls “sovereign immunity” with respect to the government’s ubiquitous surveillance: the executive government is not subject to supervision unless it can be shown that private information about someone was deliberately released in order to harm that person. As Glenn Greenwald described it:

[T]he Obama DOJ demanded dismissal of the entire lawsuit [brought by the Electronic Freedom Foundation in October 2008 against the government for its warrantless spying on Americans] based on (1) its Bush-mimicking claim that the "state secrets" privilege bars any lawsuits against the Bush administration for illegal spying, and (2) a brand new "sovereign immunity" claim of breathtaking scope -- never before advanced even by the Bush administration -- that the Patriot Act bars any lawsuits of any kind for illegal government surveillance unless there is "willful disclosure" of the illegally intercepted communications.  

In other words, beyond even the outrageously broad "state secrets" privilege invented by the Bush administration and now embraced fully by the Obama administration, the Obama DOJ has now invented a brand new claim of government immunity, one which literally asserts that the U.S. Government is free to intercept all of your communications (calls, emails and the like) and -- even if what they're doing is blatantly illegal and they know it's illegal -- you are barred from suing them unless they "willfully disclose" to the public what they have learned.[vii] [Emphases in original.]

In 2010, Obama publicly targeted an American citizen, Anwar Al-Aulaqi, for assassination. The ACLU, on behalf of Al-Aulaqi’s father, filed suit attempting to prevent his son’s assassination and to reverse the precedent that allowed a US president to act as judge, jury, and executioner of someone who has merely been accused. The Obama DOJ replied that Al-Aulaqi’s father’s fear for his son’s life was not credible: the allegations that Al-Aulaqi had been targeted for killing are “entirely speculative and hypothetical [and] plaintiff cannot demonstrate that he faces the sort of real and immediate threat of future injury,”[viii] that the evidence against Al-Aulaqi could not be examined because the president declared it to be “national security secrets,” and that the executive branch’s decision to target Al-Aulaqi was a “battlefield” decision and should not be subject to supervision by the judicial branch:

“It would be intolerable that courts, without the relevant information, should review and perhaps nullify actions of the Executive taken on information properly held secret.” Chicago & Southern Air Lines, 333 U.S. at 111. “Judges deficient in military knowledge, lacking vital information upon which to assess the nature of battlefield decisions, and sitting thousands of miles from the field of action” cannot reasonably review the lawfulness of a an alleged military or intelligence operation. Dacosta, 471 F.2d at 1155; see also Schneider v. Kissinger, 412 F.3d 190, 196 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (“Unlike the executive, the judiciary has no covert agents, no intelligence sources, and no policy advisors. The courts are therefore ill-suited to displace the political branches in such decision-making.”). That resolution of plaintiff’s claims would put at issue the Executive’s confidential military, intelligence, and diplomatic information, including information concerning the threat posed by a foreign organization against which the political branches have authorized the use of all necessary and appropriate force, whether that threat is imminent or concrete, whether there are reasonable alternatives to lethal force, and how such actions may affect relations with a foreign state, is further evidence that plaintiff raises non-reviewable political questions. . . .

It should therefore be apparent that to litigate any aspect of this case, starting with the threshold question of whether plaintiff has in fact suffered any cognizable injury that could be remedied by the requested relief, would require the disclosure of highly sensitive national security information concerning alleged military and intelligence actions overseas. For this reason, the Secretary of Defense, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Director of the CIA have all invoked both the military and state secrets privilege, and related statutory protections, to prevent disclosures of information that reasonably could be expected to harm national security. Absent the privileged information, the case cannot proceed.[ix]

These are the words of the administration that came into office claiming that Bush and Cheney were violating the Constitution and promising to change that.[x] Let us assume for the sake of argument that Al-Aulaqi really is a bad guy. Allowing a president to order someone’s assassination, even a really bad individual, without any trial and without any supervision, means that any president, those that you like and those that you do not, those that you trust and those that you do not, those who have no problem with you and those who regard you as a dire political opponent, can simply order you eliminated. That is why the legal system’s philosophical linchpin is that no one is above the law.



[i] Bob Woodward, Bush at War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002), 103.

[ii] In September 2000 the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a neoconservative think tank, published a ninety page report entitled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategies, Forces, and Resources For a New Century” (RAD). PNAC’s members included, among others, William Kristol, Richard Cheney, Elliott Abrams, Gary Bauer, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Steve Forbes, Jeb Bush, and William J. Bennett. RAD quoted extensively from PNAC’s June 1997 “Statement of Principles” and called for expanding upon US military preeminence. On page 26 RAD states: “While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.” In other words, Hussein is the pretext but the real agenda is US dominance in the Gulf. On page 63 RAD states, “the process of transformation [of ratcheting up US military might], even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.” That catalyzing event came a year later. As Bush wrote in his diary on September 11, 2001, “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today.” (Dan Batlz and Bob Woodward, “America’s Chaotic Road to War – Bush’s Global Strategy Began to Take Shape in First Frantic Hours After Attack,” Washington Post, January 27, 2002, A1.) RAD can be found online at NewAmericanCentury.org, www.newamericancentury.org/RebuildingAmericasDefenses.pdf, accessed on February 14, 2011.

[iii] “Spying on the Home Front,” PBS: Frontline, PBS.org, May 15, 2007, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/homefront/view/, accessed October 11, 2011.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Bush said this out loud at least three times. See “If Only I Were a Dictator, by George W. Bush,” Buzzflash.com, October 29, 2002, http://www.buzzflash.com/analysis/2002/10/29_Dictator.html, accessed May 23, 2008.

[vi] George W. Bush, “National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive,” WhiteHouseArchives.gov, May 2007, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2007/05/20070509-12.html, accessed February 15, 2011. Bill Weinberg, “NSPD-51: Bush Prepares Martial Law,” World War 4 Report (blog), May 24, 2007, http://www.ww4report.com/node/3940, accessed August 27, 2009.

[vii] Glenn Greenwald, “New and Worse Secrecy and Immunity Claims from the Obama DOJ,” Salon.com, April 6, 2009, http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2009/04/06/obama, accessed February 14, 2011.

[viii] “[T]he relief he [Plaintiff] seeks is based on unfounded speculation that the Executive Branch is acting or planning to act in a manner inconsistent with the terms of the requested injunction. Because such allegations are entirely speculative and hypothetical, plaintiff cannot demonstrate that he faces the sort of real and immediate threat of future injury that is required in order to seek the relief he is requesting. Moreover, the declaratory and injunctive relief plaintiff seeks is extremely abstract and therefore advisory—in effect, simply a command that the United States comply with generalized standards, without regard to any particular set of real or hypothetical facts, and without any realistic means of enforcement as applied to the real-time, heavily fact-dependent decisions made by military and other officials on the basis of complex and sensitive intelligence, tactical analysis and diplomatic considerations.” From “Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction and Memorandum in Support of Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss,” pp. 2-3, at Scribd.com, September 25, 2010, http://www.scribd.com/doc/38129561/Aulaqi-v-Obama-DOJ-Main-Brief, accessed February 16, 2011.

[ix] “Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction and Memorandum in Support of Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss,” in the Matter of Nasser Al-Aulaqi, on behalf of Anwar Al-Aulaqi v. Barack Obama et al, Civ. A. No. 10-cv-1469 (JDB), filed September 25, 2010, in the US District Court for the District of Alabama, available at Scribd.com, http://www.scribd.com/doc/38129561/Aulaqi-v-Obama-DOJ-Main-Brief, accessed February 16, 2011.

[x] Obama’s pledge to assassinate Al-Aulaqi has been reported by numerous mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times and ABC News and confirmed by Obama’s Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair in Congressional testimony. Glenn Greenwald summarizes this in his column, “Confirmed: Obama Authorizes Assassination of U.S. Citizen,” Salon.com, April 7, 2010, http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/04/07/assassinations, accessed April 7, 2010.