George Orwell said they defend the indefensible. According to George Carlin, they "conceal reality." Both reasons can explain how euphemisms have comeGeorge Orwell said they defend the indefensible. According to George Carlin, they "conceal reality." Both reasons can explain how euphemisms have come to pervade modern media and be increasingly relied upon in government and politics. The so-called war on terror has generated plenty of them, from "regime change" to "enhanced interrogation techniques." Yet one of the characteristics of euphemisms is that there is often a grim reality at their core.
Such is the case with the term "extraordinary rendition," the shibboleth used to describe the extrajudicial transfer of a person from one jurisdiction or country to another for arrest, detention and/or interrogation. From a legal perspective, rendition simply describes one government surrendering a fugitive to another. Yet as Steve Hendricks points out in A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial, the root of the word also means to violently tear or to split apart. His sweepingly researched account of the extraordinary rendition of Muslim cleric Abu Omar (Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr) from Italy to Egypt in February 2003 reveals how that etymology might also apply.
Although he focuses on Abu Omar's kidnapping and interrogation, Hendricks covers much more ground in his book. We learn that more than a century ago the U.S. Supreme Court ratified kidnapping a fugitive in a foreign country and returning them by force to the United States for trial. Abu Omar's and similar renditions are "extraordinary" because they weren't brought to the United States, where U.S. law would apply, but to countries where restraints on interrogation techniques were minimal to nonexistent. A Kidnapping in Milan also examines America's use of rendition against terrorists, stemming back to the Reagan Administration and including President Clinton being the first to authorize extraordinary renditions. Hendricks summarizes the history and efficacy of torture and research into by the United States government as well as its Cold War efforts to create shadow armies in European countries to be prepared for action should a Communist party take control of a government, whether legitimately or not.
As a result, Abu Omar's rendition is placed in the overall context of American policy. Although the rendition itself and the subsequent detention and interrogations seemingly went according to plan, this is a case that would blow up in the CIA's face. Not only would an Italian prosecutor investigate, last year an Italian court convicted 23 Americans, 22 of them supposedly CIA agents and the other a U.S. Air Force colonel, and two Italian intelligence agents for the kidnapping. The Americans were tried in absentia. Even that verdict, however, leaves unclear exactly where the decision to take Abu Omar was made.
Hendricks does a fine job detailing the actual abduction and the subsequent detention and interrogations. As he notes, though, much of it comes from Abu Omar himself, not necessarily contemporaneous documents of others. Equally intriguing is the Italian investigation, based in large part on SIMs cards used in European cell phones and records from cell phone towers. Where some readers may encounter problems is the potpourri of Islamic and Italian names and the various pseudonyms used by the surprisingly large number of Americans involved in the operation. While this can't be avoided, Hendricks also occasionally uses too jocular a phrase or words that contrast too much with the straightforward narrative style of the book (for example, referring to "leporine" renditions in discussing the removal of rabbits from Aviano Air Base due to the flight hazards they posed).
All in all, though, A Kidnapping in Milan shows an unvarnished truth behind a euphemism used frequently by the American government over the last decade.
The main ramifications of historic events are frequently easy to see. Often, though, we overlook the ripples that produce unexpected, or even untendedThe main ramifications of historic events are frequently easy to see. Often, though, we overlook the ripples that produce unexpected, or even untended, effects. Take 9/11, for example. It didn't take a great deal of thought to realize it would bring the U.S. into direct armed conflict with al-Qaeda. And it was barely six weeks later that the Patriot Act went into effect. But in looking at the world after 9/11, Dominic Streatfeild doesn't limit himself to the obvious.
Streatfeild displays the unforeseen aspects of the event from the outset of his highly readable book, A History of the World Since 9/11: Disaster, Deception, and Destruction in the War on Terror. The first chapter tells the story of Mark Strovo, now sitting on death row in Texas for the October 4, 2001, murder of the operator of a convenience story and suspected of other such deaths. What does that have to do with 9/11? Well, Strovo targeted "sand niggers," darker-skinned individuals who appeared to him to be Muslim. A convicted felon and admittedly racist before 9/11, Strovo told a television station after his arrest, "I did what every other American wanted to do but didn't have the nerve."
In telling Strovo's story, Streatfeild examines some of the aspects of America and the post-9/11 rhetoric that contributed to the rage reflected in Strovo's actions. Granted, Strovo is suspected of having committed a variety of retaliatory acts against prior to the murder and it takes someone predisposed to criminal violence to act out in such an extreme fashion. Still, there is little doubt about the strength of anti-Muslim emotions after 9/11 and some viewed Muslims as a threat. And if you're wondering how Strovo so easily identified his targets, "Ay-rabs" to use his term, the answer is he didn't. The man Strovo shot to death was Hindu and came to the U.S. from India in 1982. In fact, all the suspected victims and potential victims were Asian.
A History of the World Since 9/11 points out that 9/11 had unintended effects worldwide. For example, Streatfeild examines the adverse effect it had on the World Health Organization's vaccination efforts seeking to eradicate polio worldwide. Not only did U.S. military action wholly disrupt efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan but it reinforced pre-existing suspicions in Africa and elsewhere that the vaccination program was actually an American plot against Muslims. Streatfeild, a British journalist, makes a crucial observation in the book. Whether those beliefs are true -- just as whether the U.S. lied or killed innocent people -- may well be irrelevant. "What does matter is that a huge percentage of of people in the Arab world believe them."
Streatfeild's irritation and frustration is evident throughout the book. Nowhere is it more evident than in the chapters dealing with what could be considered self-inflicted damage. Thus, A History of the World Since 9/11 explores the extraordinary rendition of a German citizen of Egyptian descent, a kidnapping, imprisonment and interrogation based entirely on mistaken identity. Streatfeild also takes the reader to the weapons depots the U.S. military failed to secure after the invasion of Iraq, the looting of which provided most of the explosives and other weapons that would be used against U.S. troops during the so-called insurgency.
Yet perhaps the most frustrating events featured in the book is the chapter examining the Bush Administration's claims in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq that Iraq had been trying to purchase aluminum tubes to greatly expand a nuclear weapons program. It may be the most condemning account of the Bush Administration's actions during that period I have ever read. Streatfeild leaves little doubt that not only did parts of the government and intelligence community take only one view of the facts, they ignored and even suppressed definitive contrary evidence. It makes clear that part of Secretary of State Colin Powell's crucial speech to the United Nations was predicated on withheld information, if not affirmative misrepresentations.
There is no doubt Streatfeild views the reverberations of 9/11 as more disastrous than the attacks themselves. It's equally clear that he condemns what nations and governments have done in the name of fighting terrorism. Yet even though A History of the World Since 9/11 does have a predisposition, it is an engrossing piece of reportage in which even those who may disagree with its conclusions can gain insight and knowledge about the impact of 9/11 on the history of the world to date.
It's a phrase that has become so ubiquitous that even the Federal Reserve has a definition on one of its web sites. From the Fed's staToo big to fail.
It's a phrase that has become so ubiquitous that even the Federal Reserve has a definition on one of its web sites. From the Fed's standpoint, an organization is "too big to fail" when it is "so important to markets and their positions [are] so intertwined with those of other [institutions] that their failure would be unacceptably disruptive, financially and economically." But the complexity and interrelatedness of institutions aren't limited to the financial sphere. There's plenty of backbone systems whose failure could border on or would be downright calamitous.
John Casti examines the issue and 11 potential human-caused scenarios in X-Events: The Collapse of Everything but he's not just a 2012 apocalypse fear-monger. To the contrary, Casti is a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, where he works on the development of early-warning methods for extreme events in human society, and one of a number of scholars in the field of what is called "complexity science."
At its most basic, a core theory appears to be that as society becomes increasingly complex, there is a point where all its resources are consumed just maintaining the current level. The next big problem is, in a way, the straw that breaks the camel's back and there is a "complexity overload." Some part of a complex system rapidly collapses and the adverse effects of this "X-event" forces the society to a much lower level from which it must/can rebuild. Granted, there are events that are beyond human control -- asteroids, tsunamis, hurricanes and the like. But here's plenty of potential human-caused events to make anyone ill at ease.
Among the 11 specific X-events Casti explores, some are probably less likely to occur, such as scientific experiments creating exotic particles that can destroy all or part of the earth or the creation of intelligent robots who eventually overthrow the human race. Most, though, seem wholly realistic, such as a a long-term and widespread failure of the Internet, nuclear war or terrorism, the drying up of world oil supplies, failure of the power grid or economic collapse. Perhaps even more alarming is the interrelatedness of these complex systems. As Casti points out, a failure of the power grid may well lead to the failure of the Internet. The failure of either could lead to economic collapse in a global economy in which commerce and finance depend on electronic transactions and information exchange.
Even a commonsense view of modern life indicates X-Events isn't far-fetched speculation. Consider the electrical grid in the United States alone. Despite being one of the most advanced industrial nations, there have been several instances over the years where large chunks were taken down by human error and led to cascading effects. Think the internet can't fail? Set aside the electrical grid and think of the seemingly inveterate trojans, worms and other malware in the system. Throw in government control in some nations, denial of service attacks and the like and, as Casti notes, "there are many ways to bring down the system, or at at least huge segments of it. The most amazing fact of all is that it hasn't happened more frequently." Throw in computerized trading and finance, let alone the concept of peak oil, and there's plenty out there to worry about
But Casti contends it's not all doom and gloom. To the contrary, the real message of X-Events is that if we are aware of the potential for human-caused X-events, they are avoidable or we can greatly reduce their potential damage. Casti warns, though, that doing so is "a painful, difficult, and time-consuming process." One of our foremost problems, he says, is recognizing the risks and when they may be escalating.
We've been coddled and protected to the extent that we actually expect our governments and other public institutions to solve all problems and address our hopes and needs without cost or risk to ourselves. In short, we've fallen into the misguided belief that everyone can be above average, that it's everyone's birthright to live a happy, risk-free life, and that any misfortune or bad judgment or just plain bad luck should be laid at someone else's doorstep. So the first step on the road to reality is to drop these visions of Utopia.
If there's a sense of foreboding created by X-Events it isn't just the potential events and consequences. In actuality, knowing of them is easy. The real difficulty arises in whether we have the political and social fortitude necessary to address them before an X-Event forces us to do so in dire circumstances.