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Towards a ‘moral’ assassination model

February 22, 2013


The University of Chicago’s Center for International Studies has scheduled an upcoming talk by University of Utah law professor Amos Guiora titled ‘Legitimate Target: A Criteria Based Approach to Targeted Killing.’

Billed as an oration on the criteria of targeted killing, Guiora highlights the ‘moral’ frou-frou of state assassination:

Targeted killings represent both the contemporary weapon of choice and, and likely, the weapon of the future. From the perspective of the nation-state, the benefits of targeted killing are clear: aggressive measures against identified targets can be carried out with minimal, if any, risk to soldiers. But while the threat to soldiers is minimal, there are other risks that must be considered. Particularly, there is a high possibility of collateral damage as well as legitimate concerns regarding how a target is defined. Clearly broad legal, moral, and operational issues are at stake when considering targeted killing.

Amos Guiora will discuss why targeted killing decisions must reflect consideration of four distinct elements: law, policy, morality, and operational details, thus ensuring that it complies with principles of domestic and international laws. Based on personal experience and an academic perspective, Guiora will offer important criticism and insight into the policy as presently implemented, highlighting the need for a criteria based decision making process in defining and identifying a legitimate target. [emphasis added]

The word ‘drone’ never appears anywhere on the event announcement even though Guiora, a 19-year veteran of the Israel Defense Forces as lieutenant colonel, military law school commander, and legal adviser on Gaza, is ‘an expert on drone attacks.’


Neither will Guiora ever mention that Israel Aerospace Industries, what the Washington Post called the ‘cradle of the modern drone,’ operates 30 miles north of Gaza.

Guiora has kept busy since Israel unleashed on Operation Pillar of Cloud on Gaza in November 2012, striking at least 1,500 sites in Gaza, killing upwards of 158 Palestinians, and injuring at least 1,000. During that onslaught, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon pointed out that ‘most of the people that were hit in Gaza deserved it.’ Chemical weapons are believed to have been used in the attack as they were during Operation Cast Lead; further, Reporters Without Borders called Israeli attacks on journalists in Gaza ‘deliberate.’ As recently as February 2013 a child survivor of 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, in which 21 members of the al-Samouni family were killed in a single airstrike, was denied medical treatment by Israel.

Guiora has a distinguished career as a spokesman for Brand Israel in higher education. In a November 2012 talk at Western University (oo:14:09; Guiora’s lecture was interrupted at 45:50.) Guiora cracked sarcastic jokes about the alleged Israeli bombing of the Yarmouk factory in Sudan (last checked, a sovereign country).

A bomb-making factory in Sudan went up in smoke and that’s a good thing, whoever did it, good for them. I assume it wasn’t the government of Canada.’

That attack was at least the third semi-secretive Israeli scheme enacted in Sudan. Curiously, each one bookended a military operation against Gaza, making Guiora a winsome mouthpiece for Netanyahu, from whom he appears to have borrowed his speech about the triumvirate of threats against Israel nearly word-for-word:

Israeli media has reported that the Israeli air force carried out at least two secret operations in Sudan in January and February 2009. The first involved the bombing of a convoy carrying arms through Sudan to Gaza, in which 119 people were killed. And a ship at a Sudanese port was bombed from the air. Sudan accused the US of carrying out these attacks. In June that year Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, told US officials there was ‘a steady flow of Iranian weapons to Gaza through Sudan or Syria and then by sea.’

In December 2012, Guiora gave an interview on ‘cyber terrorism’ to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, completely devoid of any reference to the obvious.

Interviewer: If a cyberattack were to happen, where might it come from and who might the attackers be?

Guiora: First of all those who are engaged in cyber terrorism are seriously are seriously smart, sophisticated people.

The greatest moment in Guiora’s Greatest Hits PR blitz came in February 2013, when he claimed that the U.S. could be doing a much better job of extra-judicial killing, if only it followed Israel’s model.

In Israel because of the High Court of Justice, which is a branch of the Supreme Court, there is very engaged and robust judicial review of the executive decision-making process. That’s in direct contrast to here in the United States, where frankly there really is, in context of something like the drone policy there is no robust judicial review.

Guiora’s call for judicial oversight citing the Israeli example is rich given the Court’s ignominious history. In 1987, for example, the Israeli judicial system had the distinction of becoming the first state in the world to officially and publicly ‘legalize’ torture by ‘endorsing the use of “moderate physical pressure” in the interrogation of Palestinians as a “necessary” and thus legitimate means of combating “hostile terrorist activity”’ (see ‘On Torture,’ report produced by Adalah, Physicians for Human Rights, and Al Mezan Center for Human Rights).

Beyond Michael Oren, who is at the very least an official ambassador to Israel, Guiora will remind observers of Gabriella Blum, another former IDF legal adviser/booster club member (now tenured at Harvard Law School). Her ‘Invisible Threats‘ essay for Stanford’s Hoover Institution, featuring an ‘drone assassin spider’ is not to be missed.

But to those who do wish to conceal their involvement, microrobots, like cyber attacks, offer invisibility. Being near-impossible to regulate, monitor, or detect, they empower perpetrators not only to strike with impunity, but in some cases, to cover up the very occurrence of the attack. Absent the ability to attribute an attack to its source, human violence becomes no different from natural disasters—a harmful event for which the only effective remedy is preparedness, recovery, and prayer.

In nearly 20 pages of writing Blum mentions ‘Israel’ exactly once, commenting dryly that the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai was ‘caught on tape almost from beginning to end, probably affecting the planning and execution of future operations of this sort.’ In the ‘fight against terror’ by the Most Moral Army in the World, the un/official legal and academic enforcer’s of the the Israeli army’s ‘ethical code’ are indispensable salespeople.

Meanwhile on the western homefront, President Obama continues to recycle the ‘most transparent administration in history‘ line, this time in a ‘fireside hangout’ hosted by Google: ‘[W]hat I tried to do coming into the office was to create a legal and policy framework that respected our traditions and rule of law.’ Previously I pointed out the managed technophilia characteristic of his administration, such as virtual chats on drone policy, and ‘showing off this with-it-ness in the middle of the most shrouded and large-scale assassination racket in memory’ (the first time the President acknowledged the use of U.S. drones in Afghanistan was in a 2012 Google+ Hangout).

At a February 2013 White House press briefing, Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked repeatedly about judicial review in so-called targeted assassination.

Question: I mean, you’re taking away a U.S. citizen’s due process. And nobody is questioning particularly this President’s good intentions, but you’re establishing a precedent which will last beyond this administration. You’re pointing to various legal decisions to back it up, but doesn’t it deserve a broader debate and a broader court hearing?

Mr. Carney: Well, I don’t know about a specific suggestion like that. I can tell you that the administration has—and I think this is demonstrated by the public comments of senior administration officials on this matter—reviewed these issues—I think that’s demonstrated by the so-called white paper that was published today—and is continually reviewing these matters. How that process moves forward from here I’m not going to speculate.

This blanket non-answer is what Guiora pointed to when he questioned the ‘extremely broad definition by the Administration through the DOJ memo.’ The accompanying question, however, is whether moral arbitration about state assassination is Israel’s to give.

This first appeared at The New Inquiry.

Above: Funeral inside Gaza City Mosque following an Israeli drone attack that killed three people, including a
five-year old child, during Operation Pillar of Cloud. Image by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

Five questions with Jerome Rothenberg

February 15, 2013

Five Questions with __________ is an experiment with flash interviews. The series on poets continues with poet, translator, anthologist, editor, and educator Jerome Rothenberg. I first read Rothenberg’s celebrated collections rather blindly, long before I knew enough to know about him: first, in a linguistics class, the seminal compilation Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania (UC Press, 1968) and much later on his blog Poems and Poetics, conceived as ‘a free circulation of works (poems and poetics in the present instance) outside of any commercial or academic nexus.’

Samizdat devoted an entire issue to exploring Rothenberg and Pierre Joris‘ poetics after they jointly edited the anthology Poems for the Millennium, Volumes One and Two (1995)Robert Archambeau commented in the editorial note:

In our own time the discourse about poetry, if not poetry itself, seems to have suffered through a taming and truncation of possibilities similar to the one Rothenberg and Joris saw in the years after World War II. I don’t think we’re about to see anyone offering as narrow a version of poetry as Winters offered in his little anthology. But the easy division of poetry into mainstream and otherstream, into Iowa school and Buffalo school, into confession and langpo, has become stifling. The two party version of poetry is about as satisfying and representative as the two party version of politics.

Poets of any language and place should beware the ‘taming and truncation of possibilities’ but arguably none more so than poets writing in English in the United States of America. Rothenberg’s efforts trump the limits of geopolitics without discarding cartographies of power, rooting poetry across/beyond location and historical time (if ‘trans-millennial’ does not exist, can we coin it?).

When the consequence of such a project reverberates as widely as it has, it is doubtful whether stated intention matters. But he has claimed that intention as an intensely personal one, connecting his enthusiasm about the poetry of North American Indians—‘a high poetry and art, which only a colonialist ideology could have blinded us into labeling “primitive” or “savage”’—with his own ancestral lineage ‘in the world of Jewish mystics, thieves and madmen.’

europe today

What has most surprised you about the primordial questions that have concerned poetry, or poetry’s primordiality itself?

The surprise came early & only grew stronger during those years when I myself was coming into poetry. What had preceded it was the idea of poetry as a late & culturally exclusive process, confined to the developed world & absent or defective in the rest. The turnabout, as it came to me & others, was that poetry in fact was everywhere & was probably coterminous with our earliest emergence as “knowing humans,” strongest often where we least expected it. For that Technicians of the Sacred in 1968 marked my final turning point & allowed me to declare, right from the start, that “primitive means complex” & maybe more so than so much of what we took for granted as our own.

If maps are drawn by those who happen to be in power what happens to those without it?

Maps mean the legislated or regulated reality that the powerful create & enforce against the powerless. The results for those ground down by them are devastating, excluding them, if left unchallenged, not only from any viable political geography but from any mental or spiritual terrain of their own devising. Against this one can think of many forms of resistance, for myself & others a part of what we mean when we speak, as we often do, of a poetics or an ethnopoetics as a remapping of what was foisted on us as the only true tradition. I don’t know what kind of power comes with that kind of mapping, only to say that mapping as a process is at the heart of what we do . . . or should be.

What are the forgotten or underrated virtues of domesticity?

A question like that has my head reeling, the more I think of it. While it hasn’t often come into the writing, for me at least there has been an incredible domesticity, a friendship & love at the center of my life, & its duration over time has gone beyond the boundaries of what I ever thought was possible. At the end of the pre-face to Technicians of the Sacredsome forty years ago by nowI recognized “the-woman” & “the-child” as central both to my own life & “to the ‘oldest’ cultures that we know.” Where it works (& more often than not it probably doesn’t) there is a precarious stability that comes with it & a kind of love more agape than erosif we mean to set the two apart. I remember that I shared that concept too with Robert Duncan in his declaration of himself as “householder” & life-long companion in his love for Jess, like mine for Diane. And if my poetry is mostly pointing elsewhere, on its softer side I sometimes open up to that domesticity or think I doas in this poem in A Book of Concealments (“for Diane’s birthday” 2002):


Warm days are hanging
over San Diego,
where streets
slide into murky
canyons.  What
is this but
home & what
is home
but a misnomer?
Pisces has shifted
into Aries.
bumps shadowing
the server’s
arms are no
concern to anyone
yet called to our
attention show
a strain, a fearsomeness
hard to conceal.
The times are never right.
A skin of air is over
everything.  The sun
flows like a liquid,
all the universe we see
has never happened.
There is no truth to time
except for birthdays.
In a city under siege
a ceremony
gathers, scattering
the birds.
We live forever
in the instant,
in the house we share.
A groom & bride
are figures,
smaller than a thumb
& little reckoning
how short
the passage between
death & life.

What was your strangest archive experience?

Maybe not “strange” but the most personal one came in 1988, when I went to the small town in Poland, Ostrow Mazowieck, which my parents had left in 1920. I had gone there for the first time the year before, but this time we were accompanied by a young Polish interpreter, who led us to the Town Hall, where I was looking to find any record I could of the family that my parents had left behind them. Those who were alive at the time of the Second World War had all been killed, as far as we knew, at the death camp in Treblinka, thirty miles away, which we had visited the year before. The woman in charge of birth & death records was suspicious at firstwary I think of people searching there for reparations or lost possessionsbut as we talked with her that seemed to fade away. The very large ledgers she brought out for us were written, earlier in Russian & later in Polish, & what we were able to track down in the short time we had was the official record of my grandfather’s death in 1920. I had been named for him, but his name as it appeared in Polish was different from what I knewJuszek Dawid rather than Yosef or Yosl& his occupation was listed curiously as student or scholar, with some reference I thought to his absorption in talmudic studies as a follower of the (hasidic) Radzyminer rebbe. I also found his father’s name, Szmul, & his mother’s, Marjem Fejga, which I hadn’t known before. For the rest the town remained a mystery to me. I located the street on which my grandparents had lived & where they had a bakery, but the house itself was gone, as was the Jewish cemetery where they might have been buried, now turned into an outdoor market place & parking lot. So the copy of the death certificate that the Town Hall people made for me was the only sure connection I had to that place & time, but more than I had counted on.

Since Lorca’s real burial place is still a mystery, what real or imaginary location might we imagine instead?

Maybe the mystery is better to keep than the bones or ashes of the burial place, & the imagination, whenever I call on it, keeps flashing back to the still living Lorca, which is what I really want to conjure up. As an actual gravesite I think of him among so many other unnamed victims that I can’t start to count or figure out which bones are his. The French word tombeau, if I remember right, is both a tomb & a kind of poem or musical composition, an elegy, to house the spirit not the body of the dead. (Mallarmé, say, has tombeaux for Poe & Baudelaire, as also for his own dead son.) For myself it’s the Lorca Variations that would be my tombeau for Lorca, his words fusing with mine, as long as I can keep him living.  So:


The end for Lorca comes
only when we let it     helpless
with insomnia
we hear him stir     we see him
reach for Saturn
rising overhead.

No homage can repay what we have lost
our false beginnings     naked crystals
bathed in the imagination
needles that sting us, rubber
that brings us down
a rooster who cries against his shadow. 

Where it still smells of almonds
dogs are howling
at the moon     eclipses in the water
olive trees for Spain
& castanets
our homages stuffed into yellow baskets

offered to Lorca’s Spain.

This first appeared at The New Inquiry.

Above: Europe Today, an anthropomorphic map by Verlag von Caesar Schmidt, 1887.
Image from Big Map Blog.

Previously: Five Questions with Elaine Equi


February 8, 2013

For Jaime A. Salazar

White morning, full of praise.

Before every thing wakes from sleep
I wake first, thinking some
Whatever thing.

Clumsily I pull back the blinds:
Blare of wondrous light!
Anticipatory sky!

It’s all there in cashmere,
Milky Way,
Eastman Kodak white,

Enveloping the brushes and stop signs.
This blanket covers them all. Even my
Interior lake is frosted in the blast of its

Whiteness. In the accumulation of life,
In things and places outside the window,
In our little igloo,

Chaos makes a metamorphosis into quietude.
No miraculous sounds: geese, car mufflers, couples walking:
None are heard.

And I stop breathing so that nothing
Sound while you’re asleep, so that
No thing dare break

The oceanic mystery of the antemeridian.


First published in Amerarcana: A Bird & Beckett Review, 2010, p. 68.

Mr. Kristof and his hugs

January 30, 2013

hugstillStill image from Adam Curtis’ ‘Learning to Hug,’ BBC Blogs.

Pontificating on solutions to poverty (best read in all-caps: SOLUTIONS TO POVERTY) is a familiar topic of the New York Times mélange of millionaire columnists. Perhaps none are as keen on seeing it alleviated through rigorous familial oversight than Nicholas Kristof. Kristof’s ideal unit is the nuclear, middle-to-upper class, two active-duty parental household. It is indirectly projected as a panacea, and families (specifically, poor mothers) that fall short of this utopian arrangement have to answer for it.

If the Fed is endowed with the ambiguous power of enacting national monetary policy, the low-income, low-resources family is tasked with issuing hugs. Lots of them, and over many years of effusive columns. For all his prescriptions downplaying, or more accurately, ignoring the structural and historic legacy of American poverty, the blithe repetition of those prescriptions can still surprise.

For Obama’s New Term, Start Here‘ – January 2013

Maybe that’s why some of the most cost-effective antipoverty programs are aimed at the earliest years. For example, the Nurse-Family Partnership has a home-visitation program that encourages new parents of at-risk children to amp up the hugging, talking and reading. It ends at age 2, yet randomized trials show that those children are less likely to be arrested as teenagers and the families require much less government assistance. [emphasis not in original]

If that reference seemed uncannily familiar it’s because it was employed exactly a year earlier.

A Poverty Solution That Starts With A Hug‘ – January 2012

One successful example of early intervention is home visitation by childcare experts, like those from the Nurse-Family Partnership. This organization sends nurses to visit poor, vulnerable women who are pregnant for the first time. The nurse warns against smoking and alcohol and drug abuse, and later encourages breast-feeding and good nutrition, while coaxing mothers to cuddle their children and read to them. This program continues until the child is 2. [emphasis not in original]

I don’t know much about that particular organization, though I know nurses and they rival saints in sainthood. What is at stake is where the mishap of poverty is affixed, over and over. The argument is not the efficacy of an organization—this particular one serves a constituency of reportedly 85 percent single mothers—in alleviating suffering: committed, skilled people (typically women) do under-recognized, grueling care work daily. As Elliott Prasse-Freeman has written, the issue is that the ‘political context into which this solution is placed actually—as with all Kristof “solutions”—militates against fixing the structural problems.’ Capitalism can piss off. I like the turn of phrase about a robust ‘anti-politics.’ In the case of the lives of the underclass, this is an anti-politics with hidden teeth, mixing the sentimental cue of feminine/maternal labor with a steely managerial approach to cost-cutting measures. (For more on Kristof’s ‘dubious schemes for advancing women’s rights—like arresting sex workers in order to “rescue” them from prostitution, or enthusiastically supporting the creation of “sweatshops” to accommodate sex workers and other women in the global south’ see Anne Elizabeth Moore and Melissa Gira Grant’s ‘Nick Kristof: Half the Sky, All the Credit.’)

Prasse-Freeman has noted Kristof’s explicit interventionism in this excerpt, and here I gloss its barely hidden gendered dimension:  ‘Yet the cycle can be broken, and the implication is that the most cost-effective way to address poverty isn’t necessarily housing vouchers or welfare initiatives or prison-building. Rather, it may be early childhood education and parenting programs’ (emphasis not in original). His anti-politics is informed by a dismissal of pervasive structural obstacles, but the valence of the solutions he proposes are never neutral. The disciplinary wasteland of prison is a hardened, masculine world that may or may not reform the grown-up impoverished child caught up in a ‘cycle’ while the healing heart of childhood programs may move children ‘up the escalator of life’ (see the last line in ‘Chipping Away at Poverty—An Exchange‘).

If there is one motif of the ‘big heart/cost-effective solutions’ that has become the Kristof signature it is the hug. Aside from the instances referenced earlier here is a short catalog of hugging as political or economic intervention.

Profiting From A Child’s Illiteracy‘ – December 2012

I followed Courtney Trent, 22, one of these early childhood coordinators, as she visited a series of houses. She encourages the mothers (and the fathers, if they’re around) to read to the children, tell stories, talk to them, hug them. If the parents can’t read, then Ms. Trent encourages them to flip the pages on picture books and talk about what they see. [emphasis not in original]

Cuddle Your Kid!’ – October 2012

So, could the human version of licking and grooming — hugging and kissing babies, and reading to them — fortify our offspring and even our society as well? [emphasis not in original]

The New Haven Experiment‘ – February 2012

The New Haven model still doesn’t go as far as I would like, but it does represent enormous progress. And it’s a glimpse of a world in which ‘school reform’ is an agenda and not just a term that sets off a brawl.

If the American Federation of Teachers continues down this path, I’ll revisit my criticisms of teachers’ unions. Maybe even give them a hug for daring to become part of the solution. [emphasis not in original]

Hugging framed at least two stories about foreign attitudes toward the United States. The tender feelings of unnamed non-Americans in each case are directed to an imagined America or American, nearly always figurable as Kristof himself.

In the case of Iran, the unnamed former military operator doesn’t blame the U.S. for U.S. sanctions, and may even intend to hug the author in a demonstrative appreciation for his Americanness.

Hugs From Iran‘ – June 2012

‘We love America!’ gushed a former military commando, now a clothing seller, my first evening in the spiritual center of Mashhad. He was so carried away that I thought he might hug me, and although he acknowledged that his business was suffering greatly from Western sanctions, he said he blamed his own leaders. [emphasis not in original]

In Libya villagers show their profuse admiration for American bombing by embracing a fallen American airman.

Hugs From Libyans‘ – March 2011

This may be a first for the Arab world: An American airman who bailed out over Libya was rescued from his hiding place in a sheep pen by villagers who hugged him, served him juice and thanked him effusively for bombing their country. [emphasis not in original]

There is no word-specific cuddling in this column’s content, but it deserves a mention for the call to settle deep ideological differences with hugs.

Hug An Evangelical‘ – April 2004

I’ve argued often that gay marriage should be legal and that conservative Christians should show a tad more divine love for homosexuals.

But there’s a corollary. If liberals demand that the Christian right show more tolerance for gays and lesbians, then liberals need to be more respectful of conservative Christians.

While Kristof’s affective procedure seems unique it is part of a wider tradition of American sentiment that reaches at least as far back as Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe was the daughter of Lyman Beecher, an influential evangelical minister, and attributed her novel to the power of godly visions. Louis Masur writes, ‘Rich with sentimentality and emotion, as well as with romantic ideals about racial harmony, Uncle Tom’s Cabin reached out to Northern, middle-class, evangelical, female readers. It called for the immediate renunciation of sin, made salvation a reality, the Bible a guide, and spoke to mothers by making home and the unbreakable love of child the benchmark of a Christian life’ (emphasis not in original). Later, Masur appreciatively divulges that Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn were awarded the first Harriet Beecher Stowe Prize for Excellence in Writing to Advance Social Justice for their book Half the Sky.

Divergent from the representational, TV hug dissected by Adam Curtis in ‘Learning to Hug‘ Kristof’s hugs are affective substitutes for Stowe’s prayers. In the concluding remarks to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe addresses the reader directly on the question of ending slavery:

But what can an individual do? There is one thing that every individual can do – they can see to it that they feel right. Christian men and women of the North! still further, you have another power; you can pray! Do you believe in prayer? or has it become an indistinct apostolic tradition? You pray for the heathen abroad; pray also for the heathen at home. [emphasis not in original]

Glenn Hendler writes of these lines in his introduction to Public Sentiments: Structures of Feeling in Nineteenth-Century American Literature,

To ‘feel right’ here is to have proper sentiments, an appropriate response to the scenes of suffering and redemption that the reader has witnessed in the course of the novel. Stowe thus tries, as she has throughout the book, to shape the reader’s affective response, to structure the forms of identification that the novel evokes.’

Nick Kristof, too, structures the forms of identification that his work evokes. And the figure with whom the reader is called to identify is Nick Kristof himself. His progress narrative, and one glimpsed in the New York Times widely, is to assume that capitalism either needs improving or does not exist, and to attribute economic inequity to sullied or off-course parenting.

Prayer now passé, Kristof wants you to hug the pain away. His hugging corpus considered together gives the farcical impression that he would administer them as psychotropic drugs if he could do so, but only on persons of a certain class or national origin, remembering Stowe’s call to extend sympathy to the heathen abroad and the heathen at home. (Alternatively he would open the Nicholas D. Kristof Center For Kids Who Can’t Hug Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too.) What is most in need of parsing is his promotion of physical hugs on the one hand (the power of elevated oxytocin!) and the figural hug that cushions the technocratic, ultra-condescending domestic/foreign policy adages he recycles. That aspiration is comically muddled yet still chugging along.

This first appeared at The New Inquiry.

Previously: Mr. Kristof and His Others.

Gills, gills, gills

December 31, 2012

‘Their predatory skill fascinates and frightens humans, even though their
survival is threatened by human-related activities.’ [shark]

jaws poster









White Shark and Kayak



[From top to bottom: poster for Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975); gallery image for The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (Damien Hirst, 1991); hoaxed image of the flooded streets of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irene (2011); hoaxed image purporting to show a flooded Scientific Center or mall in Kuwait (2012); verified image of a research exercise (Thomas Peschak, 2003); screen grab from Shanghai shark tank bursting open (2012).]

A 33-ton shark tank in a Shanghai mall exploded, injuring up to 16 people and leaving three sharks and dozens of turtles and fish dead. It was a ghastly event that makes for an ecologically apocalyptic moving image. Going beyond the real-life scenario of such a thing happening—and ‘such a thing’ has actually happened—I’ve been grappling with its symbolic power, that is, some way to answer for the fact that I watched it on loop a dozen or more times. (That’s more times than Open Water and Open Water 2: Adrift, but not much more.) The what of the image is clear: what is the how of what it’s doing?

It is a truthful moving image not only because it is real (in contrast to the Spielberg and Hirst works that are framed as fiction or art, or the variety of viral hoaxes) but because it delivers on the dystopia of a false ambient environment. You wanted a giant decorative aquarium? Here’s your giant decorative aquarium. The post-flood images from 2011 and 2012 were digital manipulations, true. But the scenario they created was very different. In those distortions, ‘nature’ invaded urbanized terrains. The city-world’s sudden amphibiousness bestowed a cold creepiness. They may have been startling images before they were debunked but their creators were concerned with a 1:1 causality (chaotic climate futures promise blowbackhere’s the blowback).

It’s worth noting that Peschak, the marine biologist and nature photographer who took the 2003 photo duplicated in the viral hoaxes, said he was searching for a single photograph that could narrate his team’s efforts to track white sharks on kayaks. Yet even that photo belies the experiment, since it casts the shark as chasing the humans. Even the attempt to good-faith effort to study sharks masked the disruptions the researchers’ boat engines caused on their behavior. Peschak is more forthcoming about the limitations than most, and takes prudence in noting: ‘White sharks, despite their bad reputation are much more cautious and inquisitive in nature than aggressive and unpredictable. At no time did any shark show any agression towards our little yum yum yellow craft.’

Both humans and sharks are apex predators, but the Shanghai mall disaster footage upends that equalizing categorization in a way nothing else has. The average number of fatalities between 2001 and 2006 from unprovoked shark attacks was 4.3; that means in a period of around six years, there were less than five unprovoked attacks on humans. This one incident alone could never account for the human-related activity that is leading sharks toward extinction (yes, that is really happening). But the scene of three lemon sharks flailing around on the floor of a mall next to a dilapidated Clarins boutique visualizes the depths of human uncare in an unexpected and ugh, excuse me for using this word, but postmodern way. It’s a man-bites-dog story and it’s got me feeling blue.

Theoretical timeline (proceeding from the visualizations above):

(1) the simulated shark as a post-Jaws ideology of fear,

(2) the encased shark as a post-Hirst ideology of art,

(3) the virtual-meme sharks as a climate ideology, and finally,

(4) the cracked shark tank in the mall as a consummation of fear and ideology.


nota bene. I’ve focused on major visualized occurrences, though several volumes could be filled with the dregs of Sea World. Nevertheless, some of the criticisms the Shanghai accident incurred were charged with sentiments that erased the global reach of the problem, e.g. ‘This what you get for buying stuff made in China cause it’s a little cheaper.’

Gotta have a code

December 17, 2012

This first appeared at The New Inquiry.

donnie-and-omarDonnie Andrews and Michael K. Williams in ‘React Quotes’ (The Wire, Season 5, Episode 5).
Episode epigraph: ‘Just ’cause they’re in the street doesn’t mean that they lack opinions.’
Screen grab by author.

Larry Donnell Andrews was in prison serving a murder sentence (for which he turned himself in) when The Wire, featuring the character Omar Little based on his life, first aired. Donnie died after an aortic dissection last week. Few who only knew about his life from its fictional depiction would have guessed that the ‘real’ Omar Little would live twice as long as the fictional one.

Magazine and newspaper profiles flatten the life of their subject, speeding up certain parts and slowing down others in order to fit a manicured narrative. Despite that tendency, Donnie Andrews’ life—in print and onscreen fictionalization—reads like a composite of several different lives, enlarged and textured by seeming extremes. Redemption and mercy play supporting roles.

Donnie’s childhood beginnings in North Carolina formed the background to the first dead body he saw at age four. It was a black man lynched and hanging from a tree. At age nine he and his brother witnessed a man murdered in a laundromat over fifteen cents. He has addressed the question of black vulnerability in the United States with full recognition of historic unjustness, exploitation, and inequity. Of his life in Baltimore he said, ‘You don’t count money, you count time. Everyone out there is a walking dead man. We can’t rely on the police when we need ‘em. They just come to take the bodies away.’ David Simon, whatever one’s opinion of his editorializing of his show, told The Baltimore Sun: ‘On paper, he’s a murderer. We’ve constructed a criminal justice system that doesn’t allow for the idea of redemption, and Donnie puts a lie to that.’

met Donnie two years ago when he joined the cast of The Wire highlighting Charles Ogletree’s law school course on systemic inequality. He was the least impressed with the show, which he half-soberly, half-playfully called ‘watered down.’ On Omar leaping out from the fifth-story ledge of a building (Donnie jumped from the balcony of the Murphy Homes public housing project in West Baltimore), he told The Independent: ‘That really happened to me, but I had to jump out of the sixth floor. It was either lead poisoning or take my chances, so I took my chances. I did it without thinking. If I’d thought about it, I might have taken the lead poisoning.’

Around the time we met I had been researching fictional criminals in Brazilian cinema, particularly during the military regime when the visualizing of redemptive violence (in distinction to the racialized depictions that accompanied electoral democracy) was a powerful force in film. Rogério Sganzerla’s The Red-Light Bandit (1968) was based on the real-life João Acácio Pereira da Costa who robbed the homes of the rich with a red lantern. Though Sganzerla’s film took great liberties with fictionalizing that life, the bandit code of ‘civilians’ or ‘citizens’ being left unharmed applied as much to fiction as real-life. Pereira da Costa’s larger-than-life biography made for a riotous film (which didn’t show him serving 30 years in prison) but left open the possibility for atonement and redemption despite the choices made under nearly insurmountable odds.

If I can be allowed the indulgence of crossing the boundary of Donnie’s real life similarly, The Wire‘s most illustrative segments on honor codes came across in exchanges between Omar and police detective Bunk Moreland. In the first season of the show (‘One Arrest,’ 1.7), Omar acknowledges there is one.

Bunk Moreland: So, you’re my eyeball witness, huh? [Omar nods] So, why’d you step up on this?
Omar: Bird triflin’, basically. Kill an everyday workin’ man and all. I mean, I do some dirt, too, but I ain’t never put my gun on nobody that wasn’t in the game.
Bunk: A man must have a code.
Omar: Oh, no doubt.

Three seasons later (‘Unto Others,’ 4.7), Omar repeats Bunk’s summation of him: ‘A man gotta have a code.’ As in the image of Michael K. Williams (playing Donnie) sitting with Donnie himself in the still above above, Donnie was always in the presence of many mirrors of himself. (‘Why did I kill a man that looked just like me?’)

Omar Little, an outlying thief who robbed drug dealers, was endowed with a moral complexity seldom seen on television (and The Wire was not just television: it is to this day one of the few series set in a predominantly black city without drawing sensationalized attention to that fact). If Omar was ‘one of TV’s greatest characters’ it was because of Donnie. The show distinguished itself by laying out a palimpsest of failed American institutions but even within that decentralized narrative Omar was singular because the outcome of his life, before, during, and after incarceration was so unusual. He harnessed his dwindling resources to transform his own and others’ lives. This country’s prison-industrial complex is so brutal and efficient at marginalizing black men that his survival and gift of sharing that survival are truly extraordinary. Simon: ‘The prison system in America isn’t structured for rehabilitation. It’s structured for warehousing. I believe in the individual’s capacity to change their own future. Systemically, though, we sure make it hard. It’s a pretty lonesome journey.’

Donnie was married to Fran Boyd, a remarkable person in her own right (and a protagonist in Ed Burns’ The Corner). The New York Times profiled Donnie and Fran’s four-year courtship, mainly comprised of conversation and letters as Donnie was behind bars. They met in person several years later. (Simon called her his only hero: ‘Woody Guthrie and Fran, I guess—and I’m not so sure about Woody.’) Donnie and Fran raised at least four children together, his stepson and three of his Fran Boyd’s nieces and nephews. (It appears to have been quite the year for Boyd, who lost her son DeAndre McCullough (also featured in The Cornera few months ago to a drug overdose.) In our brief conversation about his life and its televised depiction, Donnie brought Fran up several times. Before he parted he gave me his phone number for a follow-up interview (which I didn’t follow up on—it just seemed at the time that Donnie would live forever). When I asked for his email, he quickly replied, ‘It’s donnell loves fran at […] dot com.’ Real recognizes real, as he used to say.

Mr. Kristof and his others

December 10, 2012


The mission continues.