United States Politics and the Economy

Ferguson is Baghdad is New York is Kabul

Our wars abroad are mirror images of the war at home

By Sonali Kolhatkar

There is a pattern emerging in my Facebook feed this week. One group of friends has been posting stories of police brutality and protests accompanied by personal statements of outrage. Another group has been remarking on the disgusting revelations from the Senate Intelligence Committee’s CIA torture report and the need for accountability. There is little overlap between the two groups, and yet the common threads between the U.S.’ foreign and domestic policies are disturbingly uncanny.

Whether on the streets of Baghdad or Ferguson, soldiers and militarized police forces have historically enforced control, not law. Behind the prison walls of Guantanamo and Texas, some authorities have tortured and brutalized rather than interrogated. They have not protected nor served; they have attacked and killed. They have not gathered intelligence; they have violated people’s humanity.

I am an immigrant to the United States. The names of those killed and tortured in Iraq and Afghanistan invoke in my imagination people who look like me, people I could have known, who could be my family. In the faces of those killed and tortured in Ferguson and Los Angeles, I see my neighbors and friends, people I know and love and think of as family. These are not separate and distinct. The pain I feel while reading the CIA report is as strong as the grief that comes from perusing the images of unarmed people of color who have been killed by U.S. police. The U.S. tortures and imprisons people of color both at home and abroad.

Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color, in particular Black men in the U.S., while detainees from the “war on terror” in Guantanamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, have been almost entirely brown, Muslim men. Just as people of color, in particular Black men, are disproportionately more likely to be killed domestically by police officers, U.S. soldiers have been deployed in poor countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where the nonwhite populations of Muslim men, women and children are victimized through shootings and raids.

Among the revelations in the report on CIA tactics is the story of an Afghan man named Gul Rahman who literally froze to death while in U.S. custody. Rahman was chained with only a single piece of clothing covering the top half of his body and “died of hypothermia.” In 2012, at least ten inmates in the Texas prison system died of heat stroke. An unnamed corrections officer told The New York Times that he worried about “boiling [inmates] in their cells.”

Also revealed in grisly detail in the report on CIA practices is the barbarism of waterboarding detainees such as Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. But water torture is an age-old American tradition, historically practiced domestically, as professor Anne-Marie Cusac discussed in her 2009 book Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America. Inmates in CIA custody were also subjected to a horrific practice called “rectal feedings,” which resulted in serious injuries. But similar techniques have been used on U.S. inmates domestically, as this report on torture in American prisons reveals. Inmates in federal and state prisons describe being sodomized by flashlights and even having chemical fire extinguishers sprayed inside them.

The brutality of CIA interrogators as revealed in the Senate committee report was part of the project of war that includes the open aggression of U.S. troops on the streets of Baghdad and Kabul in the post 9/11 years. Similarly, the savagery inside U.S. prisons goes hand in hand with the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and the countless slayings of unarmed Black men in the U.S. Our wars abroad are mirror images of the war at home.

Simply comparing photographs of police in Ferguson to U.S. troops on the battlefield is instructive. We have turned cities into war zones and those cities could be either here in the U.S. or in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is not the case that U.S. police are simply hoping to emulate the military. In fact, the Pentagon has literally outfitted domestic law enforcement with the weapons of war.

Often used to justify the trigger-happy behavior of U.S. police is an assertion that policing is a dangerous and “thankless” job and that, in facing off with potential criminals at every turn, “it’s either you or them.” Similarly, U.S. soldiers in the battlefield have fired at civilians, claiming they were under attack. This siege mentality is a convenient cover by armed men using the authority of their badge or uniform to condone their killings.

Just as police officers such as Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo are almost never convicted for killing people, it is similarly rare for U.S. soldiers to face justice despite overwhelming evidence of their wrongdoing. For example, Amnesty International maintains that of the 1,800 Afghans killed by U.S. troops in the five year period 2009-2013, only six cases actually went to trial.

None of this should surprise us. After all, presidents have explicitly declared wars on both domestic and foreign fronts. After Nixon pronounced a “war on drugs” in 1971 during the late stages of the Vietnam War, that domestic war has been extended by every president since. Criminalizing drug use and sales has driven much of the U.S.’ domestic incarceration. And with the advent of the post 9/11 war on terror, our imprisonment of “terror suspects” and foreign fighters has increased dramatically. The two wars have occurred in parallel with each other. Armed men have been perpetrators, protected by elites, while poor people of color have been the primary targets and victims.

Not enough progressive Americans make the connection between these wars we wage simultaneously. Whether it is our federal or state officials that are responsible for killings and torture at home or abroad, ultimately we fund it all through our tax dollars and sanction it all through our silence. Too many liberal activists fixate on the effects of U.S. foreign policy while ignoring what is happening on our doorstep. And too many of us who work for justice domestically overlook what is done to our brothers and sisters abroad. If we are to transform the U.S.’ approach to violence we need to draw links between right here and far away. Ferguson is Baghdad is New York is Kabul.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and executive producer of “Uprising,” a daily radio program at KPFK Pacifica Radio, soon to be on Free Speech TV. She is also the Director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit that supports women’s rights activists in Afghanistan and co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence.

Common Dreams, December 12, 2014