Friday, December 2, 2016

Platformitis by Edward Luttwak


  • The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of Darpa, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency by Annie Jacobsen
    Little, Brown, 560 pp, £12.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 316 34947 5
The development of a nuclear explosive device and two air-deliverable fission bombs by the Manhattan Engineering District of the US Army Corps of Engineers cost $1.845 billion, equivalent to the cost of a mere nine days of war. A much happier, and infinitely cheaper piece of research that also turned out to have world-historical impact was the development of a digital network between computers with TCP/IP communications protocols, better known as the internet. When the student-programmer Charley Kline sent the first instantaneous message (you had to print it out to keep it) on 29 October 1969, he inaugurated a new era; some months later Ray Tomlinson invented the first email program, using an @ address where such messages could linger.
That first computer network was funded by Arpa, the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Defense. The same outfit, now known as Darpa, with ‘Defense’ tacked onto the start of the acronym, has achieved many other startling things over the years, from its support for the development of America’s first plastic and aluminium rifle in the early 1960s – actually a heroic struggle against the US army’s obdurate use of heavy steel and wooden stocks – to the development of Transit, the direct predecessor of the GPS satellite system that allows pilots and car drivers to find their destinations automatically, and enables the existence of the new self-driving cars, in addition to its many military uses. Another Darpa project was the Aspen Movie Map, a virtual tour of Aspen provided by the first hypermedia system (four cameras rigged on the top of a car taking pictures every ten feet). This technology was used to develop large-scale combat simulators which familiarise entire battalions with the place where they’re about to be deployed, and is now in everyday use. Other Darpa creations were more straightforwardly military, from penetration aid decoys that help ballistic missiles defeat interception attempts, to all manner of remotely piloted and robotic vehicles, including reconnaissance aircraft small enough to resemble large mosquitoes.

You might think there’s nothing surprising in all this: all sorts of scientific advances should be possible given the ample funds provided to this programme by the Department of Defense. But that’s the problem: the funds available are not ample, they are very modest by Pentagon standards. In 2015 $2.87 billion were allocated to Darpa, 0.0047 per cent of the year’s total defence spending, and its staff of 220 are a tiny band among the 700,000 civilian employees of the Department of Defense. How can technology-crazy America allow such a miserly allocation of funds and people?
The short explanation is that most of the money is reserved for the pseudo-innovations pursued by the uniformed services: the navy’s supposedly ultra-new aircraft carrier that retains an unchanged 1960s configuration; the F-35 jet fighter that offers thirty-year-old ‘stealth’ as its cutting-edge novelty; the new army tank that still looks very much like the 1944 German Tiger. The dominance of this sort of pseudo-innovation is a direct result of the composition of the US armed forces as an alliance of proudly separate services, each with its own traditions, institutional culture, career paths and – most important – iconic weapons.
The Pentagon’s RDT&E (research, development, test and evaluation) money is not allotted to Darpa, or some other defence-wide organisation that might develop new weapons, systems or platforms capable of delivering really major advantages, such as remotely piloted vehicles (drones). Instead, the money is parcelled out to the separate services, each of which spends almost all of its share on enhancing its own military role, and its own identity, by expensively updating the weapons traditionally associated with it. The US army spends most of its RDT&E funds ($6.5 billion in 2015) on armoured vehicles, as well as the armed helicopters that it has been using for decades. The navy’s RDT&E funds ($16 billion in 2015) are spent on aircraft carriers and submarines, except for the portion controlled by the Marines, whose favourites are the landing ships and beach-crossing vehicles associated with its amphibian vocation – even though there has not been one opposed amphibious landing in all the wars Americans have fought in the 65 years since the Inchon landing in Korea. Most of the Marines’ money goes on aviation: their separate identity requires them to use vertical take-off and landing jet fighters, which are unwanted by the US air force or navy and are exceptionally expensive. (The travails of the F-35 joint-strike fighter are caused largely by its vertical take-off version, which distorts the entire design.) As for the air force’s $23 billion, they are spent primarily on the quest for a new manned strategic bomber, whose crew must be recovered safely even after a nuclear strike, and on the F-35, whose unit costs are as phenomenal as its shortcomings.

That’s how $45.5 billion are being spent this year but it takes a huge amount of research and development money to make just a little progress when all the parameters are set from the start. It’s for this reason that car manufacturers spend more than a billion dollars on turning out a new model only marginally superior to its predecessor: laws, regulations, tax regimes, the shape of the human body, the convention that cars have four wheels – all of this constrains innovation, just as the classic military platforms do. It’s only the advent of hybrid, electrical and fuel-cell propulsion that has allowed any innovation at all after decades of stasis. The US air force recently allocated $21.4 billion of its RDT&E funds, nine times this year’s total Darpa budget, to developing a manned bomber. Unsurprisingly, Northrop won the contract to replace the Northrop B-2 flying-wing stealth bomber designed in the 1970s (its only precursor was the 1946 Northrop XB-35 flying-wing bomber) with yet another manned flying-wing stealth design, as if all the intervening innovations starting with unmanned aircraft had never happened, and as if stealth-defeating radar techniques didn’t exist.
The US air force has never funded any innovative research: not ballistic missiles, since Wernher von Braun, who aimed at the moon but hit London, was employed by the US army after the war; not air-to-air tactical missiles, another German idea developed by the US navy; and not remotely piloted aircraft, at least not until the US navy successfully used some imported from Israel, which was also the proximate source of the only truly major innovation in jet-fighter design in decades: the helmet-mounted display, whereby all the critical data – airspeed, heading, altitude, targeting information and warnings – along with real-time imagery from infrared cameras mounted around the aircraft, are projected onto the visor of the helmet, allowing pilots to look through their own airframe with 360 degree vision.

Platformitis – the fixation on retaining existing configurations – is very costly and generates increasing vulnerabilities. Cars are still useful even if their basic layout has not changed in decades, but car drivers don’t have to fight their way past enemies armed with anti-car weapons developed to exploit car-specific vulnerabilities. The continued reliance on the cherished platforms of each service has resulted in the development of more and more lethal platform-killers, often missiles that are much cheaper than the platforms they can destroy. Ask the US navy how vulnerable its aircraft carriers are and you’ll be told not at all, because carrier task-forces have anti-submarine weapons against submarine attacks, anti-air weapons against air attack, and of course anti-ship weapons against ship attacks; but if Darpa were given the task of sinking aircraft carriers, it wouldn’t bother with any of those, but would instead use ballistic missiles to launch warheads that would plunge down at Mach 5 or 6 to cut right through the carriers, from flight deck to keel. That, by the way, is what the Chinese would do too. 
Annie Jacobsen’s book sets the stage by reviewing the major pre-Arpa innovations, notably nuclear weapons, computers and ballistic missiles, before telling Arpa’s story from its 1957 foundation. Early on she gets one episode wrong – and it’s an interesting mistake. She dates the Mutual Assured Destruction concept of the 1960s to the 1950s, and then gives credit to the once celebrated and now deservedly forgotten Albert Wohlstetter for the ‘second-strike’ concept: the insight that what deters isn’t a country’s inventory of ballistic missiles but the portion of it that can reliably survive a surprise attack. Actually, Wohlstetter worked on the basing of bombers, not missiles, and the essential insight wasn’t his but his wife Roberta’s: she re-examined the Pearl Harbor attack (her book Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision has been in print since 1962) and came up with two findings of enduring importance. The first is that surprise attacks succeed not because of impenetrable secrecy, but because the ‘signals’ generated by their preparation are obscured by the ‘noise’ of outdated, irrelevant and misleading information, amplified by wishful thinking. The remedy isn’t the mirage of ‘better analysis’, but deploying would-be deterrent forces in ways that are inherently resilient to surprise attack, even if they’re less cost-effective. The second finding followed directly from this: in Washington it was thought that keeping the US fleet at Pearl Harbor, halfway across the Pacific, would deter the Japanese from attacking US, British and Dutch possessions in South-East Asia, whereas the Japanese viewed the fleet’s relative proximity as an opportunity to destroy US naval strength with one blow. In other words, to deter Japan the fleet should have been kept in San Diego, well beyond Japanese reach. Not coincidentally, Albert Wohlstetter became famous for his 1954 Rand study, which taught the US air force that its nuclear bombers should be moved back to the US to deter the USSR, instead of being forward-based in Europe.

Arpa itself was the creation of Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy, who had sold soap door to door before rising ever higher at Procter & Gamble: his innovations there ranged from brand management via the competition of rival in-house brands to the now global phenomenon of soap operas. On 20 November 1957, only five weeks into his tenure, and only six weeks after the shock of the Soviet leap into space with Sputnik, he came up with the idea of creating Arpa to carry out ‘advanced research’ into space exploration among other things. He carefully avoided saying that the purpose was to circumvent the deficiencies of the services: the army, navy and air force all had their own space programmes, none sufficiently central to their concerns to warrant much money or attention, which is one reason the USSR won the space race. McElroy’s tact didn’t prevent the top brass – in rare unity – from trying hard to choke Arpa at birth. They failed only because the toppest brass of them all, Eisenhower, happened to be president.

Eisenhower denounced petty ‘jurisdictional’ concerns, successfully asked Congress for funds, and Arpa was in business. McElroy’s choice as its head was Roy Johnson of General Electric, who left his $160,000 job there for $18,000 at Arpa. The chief scientist was Herb York, part-Mohawk, son of a railway baggage man, a Manhattan Project nuclear physicist with a practical bent, utterly unpretentious and fun to be with. Space exploration was soon taken away by the creation of Nasa, so Johnson and York focused on what was known as Project Vela. This had three parts: Vela Hotel concentrated on the development of high-altitude satellites that would be able to detect nuclear explosions from space; Vela Uniform on seismic sensors to detect underground nuclear explosions; and Vela Sierra on detecting nuclear explosions in space. These were truly sinister programmes from the viewpoint of York’s erstwhile mentors in the nuclear weapons business, among them Edward Teller, because they indicated the nefarious purpose of negotiating the prohibition of nuclear tests with Khrushchev – which was exactly Eisenhower’s aim.
By the summer of 1958, Johnson and York were ready to take a much broader look at possible projects. A gathering of 22 defence scientists was charged with identifying promising opportunities. One was the Christofilos effect: if a nuclear warhead was detonated in the upper atmosphere, charged particles would create a radiation belt, which could in theory be used to destroy incoming ballistic warheads by frying their fuses. True, thousands of nuclear explosions would be needed each year to renew the shield, but the idea itself was brilliant, as was the inventor, a Greek lift mechanic called Nicholas Christofilos who taught himself physics under German occupation. After the war, Christofilos started sending letters to US nuclear laboratories describing high-energy accelerators of his own design. The letters were eventually read, and he was hired by York to help build a really big accelerator.

The hypothesis that the Earth’s magnetic field would trap charged particles was tested in the Argus detonations of August and September 1958, which were set up with a rapidity unimaginable today, especially given that the test involved assembling in the far South Atlantic an aircraft carrier, a seaplane tender, a fleet oiler, three destroyers, eight helicopters, 21 fixed-wing aircraft, a dozen missiles, three nuclear warheads and thousands of servicemen, technicians and scientists. Argus was a partial failure (the missiles malfunctioned; the detonations weren’t high enough), but the tests confirmed Christofilos’s hypothesis. Similar tests carried out the same year demonstrated the damaging effects of the electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) caused by a nuclear explosion above the atmosphere on the communications and electrical infrastructure below. These were also shown inadvertently by a Soviet high-altitude nuclear test on 22 October 1962, which set fire to the Karaganda electrical generating plant 180 miles below, and overloaded lead-and-steel-shielded trunk power lines almost a metre below ground. EMP, in other words, has a much larger reach than blast, heat or radiation, which was a matter of great importance to weaponeers, until the post-nuclear age came along to kill off battle-planning with nukes. Christofilos soon got bored with his own ‘effect’ and diverted himself by trying to solve the riddle of communicating with ballistic-missile submarines without forcing them to compromise their security by floating antennae to the surface. He came up with the conceptual answer – extremely low frequency radio – and worked out all the engineering in full detail. It was thanks to him that the US navy was able to communicate with its Polaris submarines and their successors. 
Annie Jacobsen’s book doesn’t tell that story in much detail but she surveys many more stories on her way to the present-day Darpa. Natural scientists and engineers were joined by social scientists who tried to help the fight against the Viet Cong by way of psychological operations, success metrics and such. The engineers came up with a lot of things that worked in Vietnam, including almost silent scout aircraft, swamp boats, and the laser-guided bombs that made a large-scale impact in the Gulf War in 1991 – but the social scientists could only fail, because they had no way of contending with ideology. Computer engineers eventually empowered the social scientists, albeit in the guise of intelligence analysts, not to predict the behaviour of the members of al-Qaida, Islamic State, Boko Haram and so on, but to monitor networks of people. Their capability is impressive, but as one who works in this business professionally, I can testify that the loss-of-privacy/terrorist-finding trade-off is roughly a million to one: good enough at a specific time/place, but not everywhere all the time. So while I would be happy for the US services to hand over 90 per cent of their RDT&E money to Darpa, I would also shut down its social science stuff altogether.

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n23/edward-luttwak/platformitis

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Silence by Shusaku Endo



Yes, and that on this, the most important night of his whole life, he should be disturbed by such a vile and discordant noise – this realization suddenly filled him with rage. He felt that his life was simply being trifled with; and when the groaning ceased for a moment, he began to beat on the wall. But the guards, like those who in Gethsemane slept in utter indifference to the torment of that man, did not get up. Again he began to beat wildly on the wall. Then there came the noise of the door being opened, and from the distance the sound of feet hastening rapidly towards the place that he was.

‘Father, what is wrong? What is wrong?’ It was the interpreter who spoke; and his voice was that of a cat play with its prey. ‘It’s terrible, terrible! Isn’t it better for you not to be so stubborn? If you simply say, “I apostatize,” all will be well. Then you will be able to let your strained mind relax and be at ease.’

‘It’s only that snoring,’ answered the priest through the darkness.

Suddenly the interpreter became silent as if in astonishment. ‘You think that is snoring.  .  . that is.  .  . Sawano, did you hear what he said? He thought that sound was snoring!’

The priest had not known that Ferreiras standing beside the interpreter. ‘Sawano, tell him what it is!’

The priest heard the voice of Ferreira, that voice he had heard every day long ago – it was low and pitiful. ‘That’s not snoring. That is the moaning of Christians hanging in the pit’. . .


Inside  the cell there came not the faintest sound. Only the pitch darkness where the priest now lay huddle up and through which it seemed impossible to penetrate.
‘I was here just like you.’ Ferreira uttered the words distinctly, separating the syllable from one another. ‘I was imprisoned here, and that night was darker and colder than any night in my life.’

The priest leaned his head heavily against the wooden wall and listened vaguely to the old man’s words. Even without the old man’s saying so, he knew that that night had been blacker than any before. The problem was not this; the problem was that he must not be defeated by Ferreira’s temptings – the tempting of Ferreira who had been shut up in the darkness just like himself and was now enticing him to follow the same path.

‘I, too, heard those voices. I heard the groaning of men handing in the pit.’ And even as Ferreira finished speaking, the voices like snoring, now high, now low, were carried to their ears. But now the priest was aware of the truth. I was not snoring. It was the gasping and groaning of helpless men hanging in the pit.

While he had been squatting here in the darkness, someone had been groaning, as the blood dripped from his nose and mouth. He had not even adverted to this, he had uttered no prayer; he had laughed. The very thought bewildered him completely. He had thought the sound of that voice ludicrous, and he had laughed aloud. He had believed in his pride that he alone in this night was sharing in the suffering of that man [Jesus]. But here just beside him were people who were sharing in that suffering much more than he. Why this craziness, murmured a voice not his own. And you call yourself a priest! A priest who takes upon himself the sufferings of others! ‘Lord, until this moment have you been mocking me?, he cried aloud.

“Laudate Eum [Praise Him]! I engraved those letters on the wall,’ Ferreira repeated. ‘Can’t you find them? Look again!’
“I know!’ The priest, carried away by anger, shouted lauder than ever before. ‘Keep quiet!’ he said. “You have no right to speak to me like this.’

‘I have no right? That is certain. I have no right. Listening to those groans all night I was no longer able to give praise to the Lord. I did not apostatize because I was suspended in the pit. For three days, I who stand before you was hung in a pit of foul excrement, but I did not say a single word that might betray my God.’ Ferreira raised a voice that was like a growl as he shouted: ‘The reason I apostatized . . .are you ready? Listen! I was out in here and heard the voices of those people for who God did nothing. God did not do a single thing. I prayed with all my strength; but God did nothing.’
‘Be quiet!’
‘Alright. Pray! But those Christians are partaking of a terrible suffering such as you cannot even understand. From yesterday – in the future –now at this very moment. Why must they suffer like this? And while this goes on, you do nothing for them. And God, he does nothing either.’

The priest shook his head wildly, putting both fingers into his ears. But the voice of Ferreira together with the groaning of the Christians broke mercilessly in Stop! Stop! Lord, it is now that you should break the silence. You must not remain silent. Prove that you are justice, that you are goodness, that you are love. You must say something to show the world that you are the august one.

A great shadow passed over his soul like that of the great wings of a bird flying over the mast of a ship. The wings of the bird now brought to his mind the memory of the various ways in which the Christians had died. At that time, to, God had been silent. When the misty rain floated over the sea, he was silent. When the one-eyed man had been killed beneath the blazing rays of the sun, he had said nothing. But at that time  the Priest had been able to stand it; or, rather than stand it, he had been able to thrust the terrible doubt far from the threshold of his mind. But no it was different. Why is God continually silent while those groaning voices go on?

‘Now they are in that courtyard’ (it was the sorrowful voice of Ferreira that whispered to him.) ‘There unfortunate Christians are hanging. They have been hanging there since you came here.’

The old man was telling no lie. As he strained his ears the groaning that had seemed to be that of a single voice suddenly revealed itself as a double one- groaning was high (it never became low): the high voice and the low voice were mingled with one another, coming from different persons.

‘When I spent that night here five people were suspended in the pit. Five voices were carried to my ears on the wind. The official said: “If you apostatize, those people will immediately be taken out of the pit, their bonds will be loosed, and we will put medicine on their wounds.” I answered: “why do not these people not apostatize?” And the official laughs as he answered me: “They have already apostatized many times. But as long as you don’t apostatize these peasants cannot be saved.”’

‘And you .  .  .’ The priest spoke through his tears. ‘You should have prayed .  .  . .’

‘I did pray. I kept on praying. But prayer did nothing to alleviate their suffering. Behind their ears a small incision was made; the blood drips slowly through the incision and through the nose and mouth. I know it well, because I experienced the same suffering in my own body. Prayer does nothing to alleviate suffering.’

The priest remembered how at Saishoji when he first met Ferreira he had noticed a scar like a burn on his temples. He remembered the brown color of the wound and now the whole scene rose p behind huis eyelids. To chase away the imagination he kept banging his head against the wall. ‘In return for these earthly sufferings, those people will receive a reward of eternal joy,’ he said.

‘Don’t deceive yourself!’ said Ferreira. ‘Don’t disguise your own weakness with those beautiful words.’

’ My weakness? The priest shook his head; yet he had no self-confidence. ‘What do you mean? It’s because I believe in the salvation of these people . . .?’

‘You make yourself more important than them. You are preoccupied with your own salvation. If you say that you will apostatize, those people will be taken out of the pit. They will be saved from suffering. And you refused to do so. It’s because you dread to be the dregs of the Church, like me.’ Until now Ferreira’s words out as a single breath of anger, but now his voice gradually weakened as he aid: “Yet I am the same as you. On that cold, black night I, too, was as you are now. And yet is your way of acting love? A priest out to live in imitation of Christ. If Christ were here .  .  .’

For a moment Ferreira remained silent; then he suddenly broke out in a strong voice: ‘Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them.’

Night gradually gave place to dawn. The cell that until now had been no more than a lump of black darkness began to glimmer in a tiny flicker of whitish light.
‘Christ would have certainly have apostatized to help men.’

‘No, no!’ said the priest, covering his face with his hands and wrenching his voice through his fingers. ‘No, no!”
‘ For love Christ would have apostatized. Even if it meant giving up everything he had.’
‘Stop tormenting me! Go away, away’ shouted the priest wildly. But now the bolt was shot and the door opened – and the white light of morning flooded into the room.

‘You are now going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed,’ said Ferreira, taking the priest gently by the shoulder.

Swaying as he walked, the priest dragged his feet along the corridor. Step by step he made his way forward, as if his legs were bound by heavy leaden chains – and Ferreira guided him along. In the gentler light of the morning, the corridor seemed endless; but there at the end stood the interpreter and two guards, looking just like three black dolls. . .





Sunday, November 27, 2016

You Love The Law Too Much by Martha Rayner


When I arrived at GTMO a week after Obama’s inauguration I did not anticipate the many ways in which he would continue on the same course as the Bush administration. Most disheartening to me and my client was the Obama administration’s  vehement stand against transparency. The Bush administration’s heavy redactions of critical information that resulted in Dark Pages would be surpassed by the Obama administration’s terribly effective efforts to use the law to hide the truth.

Upon my return from the wrenching interview with my client, I demanded the records of his secret detention and torture* from the Obama administration, including video footage of my client I believed might exist. Obama’s lawyers first responded by engaging in the pretense that they only relevant records were those involving U.S. custody, which meant when my client surfaced from dark (CIA) detention and became an ‘official” prisoner of the U.S. military, - whatever came before was not deemed ‘U.S. custody.” When I asked the habeas judge to order the administration to disclose records of detention that preceded military detention, Obama’s lawyers would neither confirm nor deny  such imprisonment and treatment had taken place and thus would neither confirm nor deny that such records existed.

The judge avoided having to contend with the messiness and toxicity that records of torture would inject into the legal proceedings he was striving to keep focused and narrow. He simply decided that the records of imprisonment and abusive and inhuman treatment were not relevant because, in light of Obama’s refusal to refute my client’s facts of torture, he would, as a legal matter, deem the torture to have taken place. This legal fix appeared to serve everyone’s interest. It certainly served the CIA’s interest by keeping its conduct secret. It ostensibly served my client’s interests by prohibiting  the government from contesting the fact that my client had been tortured. But this was directly in conflict with my client’s interest. He had an aching need for the U.S. to own up what it had done to him. He was, counterintuitively, forgiving of the CIA’s cruel trespasses on his health and dignity. What gnawed ay him was that the United States’ refusal to own up to what it had done. The Bush administration’s contention, to this day, that it did not engage in torture tears at my client. The Obama administration is complicit in its silence and strenuous efforts to stave off investigation and disclosure of our country’s crimes. Since he emerged from secret imprisonment into military custody everyone – military interrogators, FBI interrogators, officials in charge, guards and medical personnel- pretend that it did not happen. It has exacerbated my client’s trauma of torture to have it erased before his eyes.

This is the cruelty of the law – it is often not interested in what may matter most; relevancy looks  only to what matters to the law. The law permitted the United State’s government to hide the shameful and criminal details of its unlawfulness. The government would not disclose its records because the records would confirm my client’s memories and reveal more. For my client, the result of this legal wrangling left him stunned. It had the impact of Orwellian newspeak: if we do not speak of it, it did not happen. He could speak of it, but no one would listen – no one cared.

The fact is my client did not know all the facts of his treatment and torture. His ability to remember and recount was compromised by the very treatment imposed on him. Cruel treatment, sleep deprivation, methods designed to cripple his mind, and the use of unidentified drugs all impacted his memory. He knew the pain and damage it had caused him, but he did not know how even what may have been experienced by him as benign conduct was designed to undermine his will o and cause him psychological damage.

I anticipated much better from the Obama administration since another executive order, issued just months after the inauguration, promised that the administration would “operate with an unprecedented level of openness.” But it got worse. Further litigation persuaded the judger that a narrow category of information from the period of Mr. Al-Kazimi’s secret imprisonment was “relevant”- his medical records – and should be provided to me. Rather than comply with the judges orders, Obama’s lawyers filed a document with a judge that I have never been permitted to read, despite having the appropriate security clearance to do so. From what I can piece together from the judge’s subsequent decision, which was eventually made public in a heavily redacted form, it appears that the Obama administration declared that our nation would be put at risk if my client’s medical records were disclosed to me –just me, not the public – me, a licensed lawyer, law professor, and a person deemed capable by the U.S. government to maintain the secrecy of classified and top secret government documents. Why, despite an elaborate system in place to facilitate habeas counsel access to classified information, was this specific and narrow set of information utterly off-limits?

And why were medical records – information about an individual’s health and medical treatment- deemed “classified” in the first place? The president controls the definition and designation of classified information. Under current executive orders, classified information must implicate one of several national security-related topics, such as military plans, foreign government information, and intelligence activities, and its “unauthorized disclosure” could “reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally  grave damage or serious damage to national security.” Therefore, my client’s medical records were deemed classified because apparently the “originating source” of the records determined that the contents [placed our nation at risk.

What could be in those medical records such that disclosure, to a security-cleared lawyer, risks causing such harm to our country’s security? It was chilling when Obama’s lawyers told me the records would never be disclosed to me, and they never have been.

My client once told me that I love the law too much. He did not say that to criticize me, but to help me understand that he needed refuge from the law. The process of attempting top obtain, from “the law” some semblance of stability and reasonable prediction of the future was harming my client- serving only to compound his fear and disorientation. The law’s promise to bring clarity, resolution, some semblance of predictability, and accountability failed – for him, there is no law. His “legal status” makes no sense, he is ostensibly detainable until the end of hostilities, but hundreds of others have gone home despite the government’s claim of continued hostilities. The Obama administration designated my client for prosecution, but no prosecutor has brought charges against him. Obama claims he intends top “close GTMO” before he leaves office, but his plan is to relocate GTMO to U.S. soil. He hopes to claim closure in hope of burnishing his legacy, eliminating GTMO as a “recruiting tool” and reducing the astronomical cost of imprisonment at this offshore military base,” but Obama intends to continue imprisonment without trial indefinitely and dump the problem on the next administration just as Bush did to him. For my client, the “rule of law” permits the U.S. to hide its crimes and it permits the U.S. to take away liberty without a trial for a wholly undefined length of time. There is, for my client, no law – when he will be released, who will decide it, and under what criteria is utterly unknown.



*including: confinement in a  dark cell the size of a grave, prolonged shackling, nudity with cold air blastings, beatings and sexual abuse and molestation, suspended by his arms for long periods, plunged in freezing cold water, dragged across floors, head bangings, sensory deprivation, bombardment with deafening music, forced to kneel in a position of subjugation, drugging, continuous threats by guards with dogs, sticks and rifles, trussings like an animal, diapering, blind-folding, wrapped in tape and transported to places  they knew not where. Not registered with the Red Cross, presented with no charges and given no lawyer.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Sicilian Vespers by Steven Runciman



Easter fell early in the year 1282, on 29 March. Throughout Holy Week the island of Sicily was outwardly calm. A great Angevin armada lay at anchor in Messina harbor. Royal agents toured the island commandeering all the stores of grain they could find and rounding up herds of cattle and of pigs, to provide food for the expedition [to Constantinople], and horses for the knights to ride, regardless of the peasants’ sullen resentment. The Royal Vicar, Herbert of Orleans, governor of the island, was resident in Messina, in the castle of Mategriffon, the ‘terror of the Greeks’, which Richard Coeur de Lion had built a century before. In Palermo the justiciar, John of Saint-Remy, kept the feast in the palace of the Norman kings. None of the French officials and none of the soldiers who commanded the forty-two castles from which the countryside was policed noticed more than the habitual unfriendliness shown them by the subject race. But amongst the Sicilians themselves as they celebrated the resurrection of Christ with their traditional; songs and dancing in the street, the atmosphere was tense and explosive.

The Church of the Holy Spirit lies about  half a mile to the south-east beyond the old city wall of Palermo, on the edge of the little gorge of the river Oreto. It is an austere building, without and within. Its foundation-stone was laid in 1177 by Walter Ophamil, or ‘of the Mill’, and the English-born Archbishop of Palermo, on a day made sinister by an eclipse of the sun. It was the custom of the church to hold a festival on Easter Monday, and on Easter Monday of that year people came crowding as usual from the city and the villages around, to attend the Vesper service.



There was gossiping and singing in the square as everyone waited for the service to begin. Suddenly a group of French officials appeared to join in the festivities. They were greeted with cold, unfriendly looks, but they insisted on mingling with the crowd. They had drunk well and were carefree; and soon they treated the young women with a familiarity that outraged the Sicilians. Among them was a sergeant called Drouet, who dragged a young married woman from the crowd and pestered her with their attentions. It was more than her husband could bear. He drew his knife and fell on Drouet, and stabbed him to death. The Frenchmen rushed up the avenge their comrade and suddenly found themselves surrounded by a host of furious Sicilians, all armed with daggers and swords. Not one of the Frenchmen survived. At that moment the bell of the Church of the Holy Spirit and of all the churches of the city began to ring for Vespers.

To the sound of the bells messengers ran through the city calling on the men of Palermo to rise against the oppressor. At once the streets were full of angry armed men, crying ‘Death to the French’ – ‘moranu lin Franchiski’ in their Sicilian dialect. Every Frenchmen they met was struck down. They poured into the inns frequented by the French and the houses where they dwelt, sparing neither man, woman nor child. Sicilian girls who had married Frenchmen perished with their husbands. The rioters broke into the Dominican and Franciscan convents; and all the foreign friars were dragged out and told to pronounce the word ‘ciciri’, whose sound the French tongue could never accurately reproduce. Anyone who failed in the test was slain. The Justiciar, John of Saint-Remy, shut himself in the old royal palace; but most of the men of his garrison had been away holiday-making in the town. The few that remained could not hold it for him. He was wounded in the face during a skirmish at the entrance before fleeing with two attendants out of a window through the stables. They found horses and rode at full speed to the castle of Vicari, on the road into the interior. There they were joined by other refugees who had escaped the massacre.


By the next morning some two thousand French men and women lay dead; and the rebels were in complete control of Palermo. Their fury had calmed down sufficiently for them to think of the future. Representatives of each district and each trade met together and proclaimed themselves a Commune, electing as their Captain an eminent knight. Three vice-captains were appointed, with five counsellors to assist them. The Angevin flag was torn down, and everywhere replaced by the Imperial Eagle which Fredrick II [of Hohenstaufen whose wife was Constance of Aragon] had allotted as the badge to the city of his childhood. A letter was sent to the Pope asking him to take the new Commune under his protection.

Already news of the uprising was spreading throughout the island. . . through-out the week news came of further uprisings and slaughtering of the French. The first town to follow the example of Palermo was Corleone, twenty miles to the south. After killing  the French it too proclaimed itself a Commune. The two Communes decided to send troops in three directions to rouse the rest of the island and coordinate its efforts. As the rebels approached each district, the French fled or were massacred. In two towns only they were spared. The Vice-Justiciar of Western Sicily had won the love of the Sicilians by his benevolence and justice. He and his family were escorted with honor to Palermo and allowed to embark for Provence,. The town of Sperlinga, in the center of the island, prided itself on its independence of view. The French garrison there was unharmed and was able to retire safely to Messina.

In Messina there was no uprising. The Vicar, Herbert of Orleans, had  a strong garrison. The great Angevin fleet was in the harbor. Messina had been the only city in the island to which Charles’s government had shown any favor; and its leading family, the Riso, supported his regime.   On 13 April, when all the West and center of the island was in rebel hands, the Commune of Palermo sent a letter to the people of Messina, asking them to join the rebellion. But the Messinese were cautious. With Herbert and his garrison dominating them from the castle of Mategriffin and with the king’s ships lying off the quay, they preferred not to commit themselves. Instead. On 15 April, a Messinese army troop, under a local knight, moved to the south to the neighboring city of Taormina, to protect it against the fury of the rebels. At the same time Herbert  sent a Messinese noble, Richard Riso, in command of seven local galleys to blockade Palermo harbor and if possible to attack its fortifications. The Palermitans hastened to display the banner of Messina with its cross on the walls, to show they regarded the Messinese as their brothers; and Richard’s sailors refused to fight them. The galleys remained off the harbor maintaining an unenthusiastic and inefficient blockade.

In Messina opinion was swaying round in favor of the revolt. Many of its citizens were also citizens of Palermo who had moved to Messina when it became an administrative center. Their sympathies were with their native city. Herbert began to lose confidence. He determined to make sure of Taormina and sent a troop of Frenchmen there under a Neapolitan to replace the Messina garrison. William Chiriolo and his men were offended by this lack of trust in them. They came to blows with the French and took them all prisoner. Two or three days later Messina broke out in revolt. Most of the French were already retired to the castle; and the massacres were on a smaller scale than at Palermo. Herbert blockaded himself in the castle, but he was obliged to abandon the fleet, which was set on fire and utterly destroyed. The Messinese declared themselves a Commune, under the protection of the Holy Church. They elected as their captain Bartholomew Maniscalo, who had played the chief part in organizing the revolt. . .


 The theme of the story is twofold. The episode of the Vespers at Palermo marked a savage and important turning point in the history of Sicily. It also taught a lesson to the whole of Europe. . .


With his own great abilities, and with the Papacy, France and the Italian Gueffs to back him, it seems at first surprising that Charles of Anjou’s career should have ended in failure. He failed through his own sensitivity and his lack of understanding of the peoples with who he had to deal with. The French had shown themselves to be the most vigorous and enterprising race in medieval Europe, and they knew it. They began to see themselves as a master-race. They had organized the crusading movement and had supplied most of its manpower and its direction. They had established their way of life in Palestine and Greece. It was their destiny to dominate Christendom. Charles was a Frenchman. He was moreover a French Prince; and it was above all the Royal House of France that had given the country unity and national consciousness. It was the Capetian Kings who bringing order an justice to the people and breaking down the arbitrary and disruptive power of the nobles. While Charles was a child his mother and his brother were busy crushing the turbulent nobility of France. As a young man he had the task of crushing the nobility of Provence. He grew up in the assumption that popular sympathies were with the centralizing power.

This pride of race and position led him into two grave errors, one of foreign politics and one of home politics. He saw himself as the heir of the crusader princes, especially in Eastern Europe. The French had taken pride in the Fourth Crusade and the establishment of the Latin Empire at Constantinople. Its fall was an insult to them. They could not quite understand it, for it never occurred to them that to the Byzantines, as to the Arabs in the East, they did not represent the finest flowers of civilization but were savage intruders with a liking for religious persecution. Charles believed that would be an easy task to restore the Latin empire, if only he were allowed to send an expedition against Constantinople. From the military aspect he was right; but he made no allowance for the passionate hatred that the Byzantines bore against the West nor the lengths that they would go to prevent an attack; nor did he appreciate properly the skill in diplomacy that they had acquired down the centuries. He despised the court of Aragon and never saw how effectively its claims could be used against him. He underrated his foreign enemies and never understood that they could be dangerous in combination [they conspired to engineer the revolt in Sicily just as Charles was embarking on his crusade against Constantinople].


Their combination was successful because of Charles’s errors in the internal governments of his kingdom. He was not unaware of the forces of nationalism. He knew that he could trust his fellow-French, and he trusted no other race. It was his practice in each of his dominions as far as possible to employ officials drawn from some other of his dominions. But he took no account of the resentment that such a policy might cause. He seems to have thought that, as in France, the element dangerous to the monarchy was the nobility, and that lesser folk would automatically rally to the king. In his Italian lands he diminished the power of the local nobility and relied on imported French nobles and knights, to whom he never allowed much territorial power. He failed to see that either these imported nobleman did not at once become efficient and incorruptible functionaries, just because they were divorced from their ancient hereditary territories, or that a local population might dislike foreign officials even if they were efficient. Charles himself was a good administrator, but he could not supervise everything. It is clear from the reforms he made that he hastily introduced when things went wrong, that his administration had been full of flaws. In particular it failed to satisfy the Sicilians.

It is here that the Sicilian theme mingles with the European. Charles neglected Sicily. He found it poorer and less useful to him than his other dominions. The Sicilians annoyed him by a long rebellion early in his reign. He never paid a serious visit to the island and never himself inspected its governmental machine. The officials there were more corrupt and oppressive than on the mainland where he could exercise personal control.  Yet, in spite of their earlier rebelliousness, Charles does not seem to have foreseen trouble from the Sicilians. They were of mixed racial origin. Only a half century earlier, the Greek and Arab elements could be clearly distinguished from the Latin. He may well have thought that a people of such diverse blood would never come together sufficiently closely too threaten his power for long. But in fact the misfortunes, grievances and aims of the whole island brought the islanders together. It gives a striking example of how little national feeling depends on the purity of race. It was a revolt in the island, plotted, fostered and organized by his enemies from outside, but carried out and maintained by the angry courage of the Sicilians themselves, which pulled Charles’s empire down. Some of the Sicilian leaders might waver. The intervention of Aragon and the naval genius of Roger of Lauria might contribute to the victory; but it was the unflinching determination of the Sicilians themselves, undiminished by the desertion by their allies later on, which freed them from the hated rule of the Angevins.

Charles’s failure as an empire-builder lay in his failure to understand the Mediterranean world of his time. Had he been content with the role of King of Sicily he might have had time to learn how to govern his subjects there, but he saw himself the soldier of God, chosen by the Holy Church to be its champion. The western empire had fallen because it had opposed the Church. He would build a new empire under the aegis of the Church, as its secular arm. He was too late. Christendom had split into too many units with their local interests; nationalism was growing too fast. Charles himself was affected by it. Whatever his own conception of his role may have been, in his actions he was partly  the agent of papal imperialism, partly of French imperialism and partly of his own personal and dynastic ambition; and the parts were confused. Later the Angevin House was to find glory when seated on the Hungarian throne, but only so long as it confined its interests to central Europe.  When it tried to combine its dominions in Italy with those in central Europe, the task was beyond it. The kings of the Angevin dynasty were nearly all of them men of outstanding  ability who made their mark on European history. But it was an ephemeral mark and did little good to Europe.

The massacre of the Vespers ruined the experiment of King Charles’s empire. But more, too, perished in the blood-bath. It was the ruin of the Hildebrandine Papacy. The Papacy had committed itself to Charles. A few wiser Popes such as Gregory X and Nicolas III, had tried to reduce the commitment, but in vain. The Sicilians  themselves did their best to offer the Papacy a road to escape. A better Pope than Martin IV might have cut the losses of the Papacy in time. But even so there would have been losses. The failure to support Charles would have been an admission that Rome had been wrong. But to support him so blindly against the wishes of a devout people and against the conscience of much of Europe, and then to be dragged by him into defeat, meant a far crueler humiliation. The Papacy threw everything into the struggle. It threw more money than it could afford. It threw the weapon of the Holy War, and all to no purpose. It emerged financially impoverished; and to recoup its finances it was forced to try to extract from the secular powers more than they would now willingly pay. It emerged with its chief spiritual weapon tarnished; for there were few Europeans outside France and the Gueff cities of Italy who could regard the repression of the Sicilians as a spiritual aim. The idea of Holy War had been cheapened already when it was used against the Hohenstaufen. It now fell into utter disrepute. The high authority of the Papacy was wasted on a losing cause, without the certitude of moral right on its side. No conception of Medieval history was finer than that of the Universal Church, uniting Christendom into one great theocracy governed by the impartial wisdom of the Vicar of God. But in this sinful world even the Vicar of God needs material strength to enforce his holy will. It proved impossible for the medieval Papacy to find a lay supporter whom all Christendom could trust. By crushing the Universal Empire, which alone might possibly have provided such support, the Popes set themselves a hard problem. Their choice of Charles of Anjou is easy to understand; but it was fatal. When Charles’s power was broken by Vespers Palermo they were too inextricably involved. The story led on to the insult offered to the Holy Father at Anagni, to the Babylonish captivity of Avignon, and through the schism and disillusion to the troubles of the Reformation.


The Sicilian men who poured, with knives drawn, through the streets of Palermo on that savage evening struck their blows for freedom and honor. They could not know to what consequences it would lead them and with then the whole of Europe. Bloodshed is an evil thing and good seldom comes of it. But the blood shed on that evening not only rescued a gallant people from oppression. It altered fundamentally the history of Christendom.


The lesson was not entirely forgotten. More than three centuries later King Henry IV of France boasted to the Spanish ambassador the harm he would do to the Spanish lands in Italy were the king of Spain to try his patience too far. “I will breakfast at Milan’, he said, ‘and I will dine in Rome.’ ‘Then’, replied the ambassador, ‘Your Majesty will doubtless be in Sicily in time for Vespers.’


The Sicilian VespersA History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century by Steven Runciman; Cambridge University Press, 1958

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Nightmare from Which We are Trying to Awake by Michael Ignatieff



A disillusioned younger teacher in a turn-of-the century Dublin school is struggling through a history lesson with adolescent pupils who are just as bored as he is. He asks them the name of the ancient battle where Pyrrhus won his Pyrrhic victory, and as they mumble the wrong answers, his mind begins to wander. Why is history so suffocating? Is it nothing more than a lesson in futility and folly? Is this what his pupils unconsciously know as they yawn at their desks? Is this why they hang on in silence, waiting for the bell to deliver them back to the noise of the playground and the still un-foreclosed possibilities of youth?

After his pupils flood out into the school yard, the young teacher goes to his headmaster’s study to collect his weekly wages. Turn-of-the-century Ireland is still very much in the British Empire, and Mr. Deasy’s study is decorated with the iconography of empire and British union: a tintype of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and sporting prints of famous English horses. Mr. Deasy identifies with this iconography of Protestant imperial power: he baits the young teacher and calls him a Fenian, while the young teacher bites his tongue and conjures up in his mind all the savagery incarnated in the Protestant conquest: the Catholic corpses left behind by Cromwell’s bloody passage through Ireland. This is history at its most suffocating: the blood-soaked myth that foreclosed all benign possibilities. “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”: Mr. Deasy intones all the adamantine slogans of resistance to home rule and Irish national independence. But there are darker myths imprisoning Mr. Deasy and his kind. He waves his finger at the young teacher., “Mark my words . . . England is in the hands of the Jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press .  .  . Old England is dying.” Having dropped the coins of the young teacher’s pay into his hands, Mr. Deasy makes a little joke. Why is it asks, that Ireland ‘has the honor of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews?”  “Why, sir?” “Because she never let them in.”



The Jews have sinned against the light, Mr. Deasy instructs him, and history – which is moving toward the manifestation of the glory of God – has proved it so.


To which Stephan Dedalus – Joyce’s  protagonist in Ulysses – famously replies: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”


History was not just the anti-Semitic philistinism and crabbed imperial arrogance of the Irish Protestant ascendancy –as deposited in the foul sediment of one turn-of-the-century schoolmaster’s brain. There was a “Fenian” version to escape as well. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the nationalist Davin tells Dedalus, “Try to be one of us. In heart you are an Irishman,” when Dedalus announces, “This race and this country and this life produced me. I shall express, myself as I am.” To Davin’s protest, “A man’s country comes first. Ireland first, Stevie. You can be a poet and a mystic after,”  Dedalus replies with cold anger: “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.”


Joyce’s writing is a long rebuke to versions of history as heritage, as roots and belonging, as comfort, refuge, and home. His was the opposite claim: You could be yourself only if you escaped home, if you struggled to awake from the dreams of your ancestors. For Joyce the artist, coming awake meant finding a language of his own against the compulsion of linguistic tradition and inheritance. As he says in Portrait of the Artist, “when the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” And fly by them Joyce did: to Trieste, Paris and Zurich, from Portrait to Ulysses to Finnegans Wake, from home to exile, from the language of his birth to a language uniquely his own. To come awake as an artist was to create something that transcended both personal and national past. To awake was to come to yourself, to force a separation between what the tribe told you to be and what you truly are.


What is nightmarish about nightmare is that it permits no saving distance between dreamer and ream. If history is nightmare, it is because past is not past. As an artist and as an Irishman, Joyce was only too aware that time in Ireland was simultaneous, not linear. In the terrible a quarrel at the beginning of Portrait over the meaning of the Irish nationalist politician Parnell’s disgrace and death, when Dante screams triumphantly, “We crushed him to death!” and Mr. Casey sobs with pain for his dead king and Stephen’s father’s eyes fill with tears, it is clear that Parnell’s death is not in the past at all. In the quarrel, past, present, and future are ablaze together, set alight by timer’s livid flame.


To awake from history, then, is to recover the saving distance between past and present and to distinguish between myth and truth. Myth is a version of the past that refuses to be just the past. Myth is a narrative shaped by desire, not by truth, formed not by the facts as best we can establish them but by our longing to be reassured and consoled. Coming awake means to renounce such longings, to recover all the sharpness of the distinction between what is true and what we wish were true.


It has become common to believe that we create our identities as much as we inherit them, that belonging is elective rather than tribal, conscious rather than unconscious, chosen rather than determined.  Even though we cannot chose the circumstances of our birth, we can chose which of these elements of our fate we make our defining inheritance. Artists like Joyce have helped us think of our identities as artistic creations and have urged us to believe that we too can fly free of the nets of nationality, religion, and language.


The truth is that the nets do bind most of us. Few of us can be artists of our own lives. That does not make us prisoners: we can come awake; we do not need to spend our lives in the twilight of the myth and collective illusion; we can become self-conscious. But though Joyce’s hard-won freedom may be beyond most of us, his metaphor of awaking points to the possibility open to us all. In awaking, we return to ourselves. We recover the saving distance between what we are told to be and what we are. This saving distance is the space of irony. We wake: we tell our nightmare to someone; its hold on us begins to break; it begins to seem funny or at least untragic. We may still shudder in the telling, but at least we can share it. We can lighten up. The day can begin.


The Warrior’s Honor; Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff; Owls Books, 1997

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Pregnancy of the World by Susan Faludi



Ha’rat Olam

 In 2014, Time magazine hailed the “Transgender Tipping Point” in a cover story that, with a thousand concurring stories from all corners of the media, enshrined gender identity as the cutting edge of civil rights. That same year, the United Nations passed a resolution condemning discrimination and violence based on gender identity, and governmental bodies from the Danish and Dutch parliaments to the New York state legislature and the New York City mayoral office proclaimed the right of citizens to change their birth certificates to match their chosen gender, even without surgery

The drumroll continued into 2015, when President Obama tweeted Caitlyn Jenner to commended her ‘courage’ (hours after she appeared in a satin corset on the cover of Vanity Fair), and transgender rights became  slogan on the presidential campaign trail. In the media, trans identity was fast solidifying into an emblematic narrative, with all the requisite tropes of victimization, heroism, and celebrity. Rarely did the fanfare convey the daily texture of complicated ordinary lives.


In the summer of that year, I received a letter from Mel Myers, who, back when he was Melanie, ran Melanie’s Cocoon, the guest house in Phuket, Thailand, where my father recovered from her operation in 20-04. Mel had finally succeeded in moving his longtime girlfriend to the United States, but at a cost. “When the time came to bring her to America and get married, I had to transition back to male,” Mel wrote. “My facial feminization surgery is covered with a beard, my reassignment surgery makes bathroom trips awkward, and I cover my beautiful breasts with loosed fitting clothes”. He said that sometimes he wished he’d continued as Melanie and sometimes he wished he’d hadn’t had the operation in the first place, “now I find myself living in limbo . . . I had my previous life as a male, I had my life as Melanie, and now I have my life as neither male nor female or both female and male.” He remembered the time when she, as Melanie, had served as “a poster child of sorts, someone who trans girls would look to for guidance and encouragement, “ but those days were in the past.


He and his wife had opened a Thai restaurant in the suburbs, and Mel was making ends meet working for the TriMet transit authority. “I see all walks of life driving a city bus. They’re little snapshots of humanity, like a quick line sketch of life, it catches life’s essence. I see myself reflected sometimes. It is enlightening sometimes and sometimes it is kind of scary,” he wrote. “I gave up a lot to be who I am.”


Back in my father’s motherland, as in the U.S. media, questions of identity were in full flower. The ruling Fidesz Party celebrated 20124 as the rebirth of Hungarian identity. That spring, the rightest party won the national elections again, and handily – with an assist from the newly minted media law, which stifled the independence of state-financed media, and with the manipulation of electoral rules  that allowed Fidesz to secure a two-thirds parliamentary majority with only 44.5 percent of the vote. Jobbik, the openly anti-Semitic and anti-Roma party, expanded its base even further, nearly edging out the long-standing Socialist Party in the Hungarian Parliament and becoming the most popular far-right party in the European Union.


Fidesz also swept the European Parliament election that year (and Jobbik came in second). And in the municipal elections that fall, Fidesz won control of every country assembly and all but one of the largest cities, including Budapest. When the polls closed in October, Fidesz leaders celebrated their party’s electoral trifecta. “Three is the Hungarian Truth,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban exulted in a speech that day, invoking the (Latin) maxim that “everything that comes in threes is perfect. “The party’s triple victory” Orban declared, solidified a national ‘unity’ and would “make Hungary great in the next four years.”


Four months earlier, the Hungarian Supreme Court has issued a ruling in support of the identity prerogatives of the political right. The court found that a TV news channel had violated the media law’s ban on opinionated press commentary by describing the far right Jobbik as . . .far right. Jobbik’s lawyers had argued that “far right” didn’t fit the party’s chosen identity, which was “Christian nationalist.” The judges concurred: “Jobbik doesn’t consider itself an extreme-right party, thus referring to it with the adjective ‘far right’ constitutes an act of expressing an opinion, making it possible for the viewer to associate it with a radical movement and induce a negative impression.”  The court’s ruling continued, in words that could have been lifted from the identity-sensitive speech codes on a college campus or the “Preferred Gender Pronoun” directives of the blogosphere: “ Even a single word, a single epithet, may exert influence on the viewer.”

On the world stage, criticism of the Hungarian government was reaching a fever pitch: the European Commission had threatened to take legal action against Hungary for undermining the independence of its judiciary and central bank’ fifty U.S. congressmen had signed a letter to Orban demanding that he condemn Jobbik’s “anti-Semitic and homophobic positions”; and media outlets around the globe were calling the nation an ‘autocracy,” the “EU’s only dictatorship,” and, in the words of one German newspaper, the new “Fuhrerstaast.” Orban was eager to turn the page. His administration hired the high-powered New York public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to reengineer its image. The Hungarian government vowed to prove its critics wrong: it would make 2014 “Holocaust Remembrance Year,” officially commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry . “2014 must be the year for facing up to the fact and for apologizing,” Janos Lazar, Organ’s state secretary and chief administrator of the initiative, asserted at a press conference to unveil the nation’s makeover. “ We must make the apology a part of our national identity.” To that end, Fidesz announced it would open a new museum about Jewish persecution in Hungary and erect memorials and exhibitions to pay respect to the ordeal of Hungarian Jews.


But plans for a Jewish-friendly “national identity”  year were soon unravelling. To direct the new museum of Jewish persecution – the House of Fates (installed in a defunct train station and devoted exclusively to ‘child victims’ – the government appointed Maria Schmidt, Orban’s historical advisor who also directed the House of Terror, the museum that had shrunk the Holocaust to a footnote. After Jewish organizations protested her selection, Schimdt unleashed a full-throated attack on these “left-liberal opinion leaders” who used “intellectual terror” and “prescribe whom we can mourn and whom we can’t, for whom we can shed a tear and for whom we can’t.” By such behavior, “they exclude themselves from our national community.” Meanwhile, the Orban government inaugurated another establishment, the Veritas Research Institute for History, to produce a history of Hungary’s last century that would ‘strengthen national identity.” Placed at its helm was right-wing military historian Sandor Szakaly, who promptly declared the 1941 Hungarian government’s deportation of eighteen thousand Jews to the Ukraine (where they were massacred by SS and Ukrainian militia) was just “a police action against aliens.”


Then the prime minister’s office unveiled plans for a monument to be erected during Holocaust Remembrance Year in Freedom Square, dedicated to “all the victims of the 19th March German invasion of Hungary”. What “all” meant became clear when the government issues a drawing of the monument’s design: An imperial eagle representing the Third Reich savagely descends on an innocent and helpless Hungary in the form of the archangel Gabriel. Prime Minister Orban described the monuments as “morally precise and immaculate.”


Some months after, I would stop on my way through Freedom Square to inspect the results. The swooping German eagle was even more supersized than the drawing had suggested, more garish, a cartoon bird of prey with armor-plate feathers.  The archangel Gabriel was a supplicant, hands held up in surrender, his delicate and bare-breasted frame a study in feminine vulnerability and innocence. Pity, O God, the Hungarian. A few feet away, a home-made counter-memorial by Holocaust survivors and the families of victims protested the assertion of innocence with a display of cracked eyeglasses, empty suitcases, and photographs of murdered relatives.


The ruling party responded to such criticisms with outrage. Janos Lazar, the state secretary who had promised that 2014 would be a year of “apologizing” for the Holocaust, accused Jewish leaders of ruining the government’s commemoration and “fomenting discord between Hungarian and Jews who have lived in unity and symbiosis for centuries.” The House of Fates director Maria Schmidt chimed in again with her own tirade: “To let international Jewish organizations have a say without having contributed a single penny to the costs of setting up the institution is contrary to the responsibility of the sovereign Hungarian state for its own past, present and future.” Those who disagree “fail to understand that this time we are dealing with our very identity.”

.  .  .

On the morning of May 14, an hour after the doctor’s phone call, I climbed the four flights of stairs in the internal--medicine building of St. Janos and travelled a iong corridor to its terminus at the physician’s station, where Dr. Molnarne was seated.

“Explain to me why she died,” I insisted, but she insisted she didn’t know. “Sepsis, heart problem, stroke. Could be anything.”

She gestured towards a large transparent trash bag. “Here,” she said. “Don’t forget this.” The sack contained my father’s “effects”: damp towels, her compression hose (for varicose veins), a set of unwashed eating utensils, her reading glasses, her terry cloth slippers, and the plastic sip cup with her name on it.

A maid making a desultory  show of mopping the floor began prodding me out of the way with her mop handle.
”Stop it!” I snapped. She made a face and plowed past me.
Do you want to view the body? Dr. Molnarne asked.

My father lay on the far cot by the window in the overpopulated ward, the cot where I’d sat with her the day before. She died without privacy, but at least, I consoled myself, she hadn’t died alone. Early morning shadow dimmed the room. A sheet covered the bed and her body, a white rose placed on top of it. I inched the sheet aside to find another shroud beneath, wound around her. I felt for the beginning of the winding and unspooled it slowly from her head and shoulders. Her face was turned towards the window. Her eyes, so resolutely shut during her last miserable days, were open. I began to shake, and then, control faltering, to sob. An elderly patient in an adjacent bed leaned over to pat my back. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she said .I was grateful for her touch. And oddly comforted by the knowledge that my father had died here in the female wing, surrounded by women.

I studied my father’s face, averted as it so often had been in life. All the years she was alive, she’s sought to settle the question of who she was. Jew or Christian? Hungarian or American? Woman or man? So many oppositions. But as I gazed upon her still body, I thought: there is in the universe only one true divide, one real binary, life and death. Either you are living or you are not. Everything else is molten, malleable.

I tucked the sheet back around my father, a nurse came into the room. She presented me with a repurposed bandage envelope, containing two small items that hadn’t made it in to the trash bag of my father’s loose effects. The nurse had collected them while preparing the body.

When I left for the United States a few days later, I would take the items with me, along with another token of remembrance, the cloth-bound prayer book my father had received on the occasion of her bar mitzvah, on the day a boy became a man. “For you,” the nurse, as she handed me the envelope. “Stephanie’s” Inside it was a pair of pearl earrings.




Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Epilogue by Rita Gabis



[She new her grandfather as a child: tall and wide like a wall; a tree with low, spreading branches. He bought her forbidden sweets, took her fishing. Everywhere they go together he introduced her with pride. But he never spoke about the war back in Lithuania and there were signs that she barely understood at the time. “Be a Roman Catholic, not like your father.” He killed fish that others threw back. Above all silence about the war and the escape of her family to America from a detention camp in Germany in 1946.  As she grew older not knowing took its toll. She spent years unravelling the mystery, hoping to discover something good about her grandfather.]


Try to look . . if you don’t find anything, don’t regret your efforts. There’s little hope, but there’s still some sort of tiny crystal of hope.

When I first began to learn about Lithuania during World War II, One Simaitre – who in addition to having the same first name as Babita (her aunt) was also, like Babita, a Lithuanian librarian - captivated me.


Employed at the Vilnius University Library, Simaite continually risked arrest and death as she smuggled food and supplies into the Vilna ghetto under the cover of participating, with Herman Kruk and others, in the decimation of Jewish literary culture by finding and sequestering important books for the Germans.

Yad Vashem lists eight hundred Lithuanians as Righteous Among the Nations, Simaite included, but Lithuania still keeps its wartime secrets. In the countryside especially, there is still a fear of saying too much, fear of a bad neighbor, a reprisal from one quarter or another, some of the fear left over from the Soviets who, directly at the war’s end, immediately executed roughly the same number of Lithuanians honored today by Yad Vashem,. And then after that, year after year, killed or deported more.


Members of the same family are often deeply divided about the past. On a trip to her mother country, my mother was told by a Lithuanian relative that “we got rid of both of them, the Jews and the Russians.” A few days later, a cousin drove my mother to a small memorial for local Jews massacred during the war.

I am sure that many Lithuanian families have as yet untold stories of their grandparents and great-grandparents, fathers or mothers, uncles and aunts, who brought butter to the ‘black window” and refused to be paid, who thrust bread into the hand of someone marching from work or to a labor camp, who gave shelter, or simply saw and did not report someone running for his life.

There were Germans also – not many, but some – like the well-known Major Karl Plagge, who through a factory in Vilnius offered extra food, protection, and life-saving permits to many of the Jewish workers there.

Some people both hurt and helped. Some people collaborated – the inadequate word – and then stopped, for reasons that might have had nothing to do with horror and the massacre of the Jewish population of Lithuania. Some helped those in need for a price that kept getting steeper.

As I read through the interrogations of those who worked under my grandfather and Jonas Maciulevicius (later executed as war criminal), certain tropes repeated themselves. Many witnesses insisted they provided aid to “Soviet citizens” trapped under fascist (German) rule. Lozas Breeris, warden of the Svencuionys prison, claimed that he had released a significant number of prisoners close to the end of the war, and had witnesses to back him up. No one my grandfather worked with ever mentioned under interrogation that Senelis had been arrested by the fascist Germans for freeing prisoners, even though they might have attached themselves to his efforts – he was their superior, after all – to win some slight mercy at the Soviets’ hands.

Certainly there were Lithuanians who abandoned their work on behalf of the Germans without repercussion. Joachim Hamann’s killing squad, for example, had its share of Lithuanian defectors,  who were allowed to walk away from the carnage without any punitive measures. MY grandfather might have been horrified to find himself at a meeting in the early fall of 1941 that mapped out the killings at Poligon (8,000 Jew shot And dumped naked into a hastily dug pit) and the creation of the Svencionys ghetto, but if so, it had not been enough to make him request another posting.

Still, as an historian I interviewed and questioned via e-mail several times noted, my grandfather was never put on trial. Though he lied on his naturalization and immigration forms, the lies were not picked up by the U.S. Justice Department. He never had the opportunity to address questions about his wartime life and answer them in a court of law, even an immigration court. According to my mother and her sister, he never mentioned either Poligon or the 1942 Beck reprisals (400+ Poles shot for the killing of a German officer by partisans), so again, in the end, there is no direct account of his role (or lack thereof) in these events.

I recently received a pro-forma letter from the FOIA unit of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department regarding the case file and notes for Vincus Valkavuichus, the Poligon guard. His extradition case still intrigued me. Why, I wondered – and still wonder – had a Poligon guard living in the United States been located and prosecuted, while Senelis, chief of the security police for the whole of the Svencionys region, had been left untouched?

Perhaps, the letter suggested, since my FOIA request had taken so long to fulfill, my interest in the material might have waned. If I no longer wanted the material, the harried specialist – who, as she told me during several phone calls, is short on staff and constantly pulled out for meetings and had a pile of requests on her desk that has mounted at a twenty cases in CD format, month after month after year, with mine close to the bottom of the stack –perhaps could pull my files out of the pile and send them back to storage. “If you are still interested . . . and wish for the request to be processed, please respond . . .”

“Yes, I am interested, yes, I wish,” I write back right away.