Broader foreign policy Iran News

Iran: Where the story starts matters

Flag_of_IranI got to hear a great piece about Iran on WNYC yesterday: Robin Wright gave an insightful interview on what the approaching inauguration of the new Iranian president could mean for U.S.-Iran relations, especially given that the U.S. House has voted to yet again renew and deepen economic sanctions against Iran.

Wright mentions that the relationship between our two countries has been broken for 34 years, “since Iranian students took the American Embassy hostage.” And that’s when a little bell started to ring in my head.

We mostly talk about the broken relationship between the U.S. and Iran as a story that starts when Americans were taken hostage at the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. Most reasonable people can agree that taking hostages at an embassy will wreck a relationship between two countries.

But why not start the story in 1953 instead of 1979? 1953 is the year the CIA orchestrated a coup d’état in Iran to put the Shah back in power so that he could maintain our political and economic interests.

To be clear — no one disputes that it was a coup, or that our CIA was behind it. Former CIA-guy Kermit Roosevelt has written a book about it. Perhaps the main fact that is unclear is how much money we spent to do it, and how much we spent maintaining the autocratic rule of the Shah from 1953 to 1979. And the exact role that our embassy played in the coup and bribes to support the Shah’s government. Yes, the same embassy that was taken over by Iranian students in 1979.

Starting the story of our relationship with Iran in 1953 instead of 1979 starts it when we are not the victim.

This is one of problems always facing us when we are talking about violence (whether it’s violence writ large or interpersonal acts of violence). Where does the story start?

Does it start when something bad happens to the party that we sympathize with? Because that’s always going to be easier, and always going to lead to short-sighted solutions that don’t address what the real situation is.

Or does it start earlier, when the party we sympathize with might be the party who is doing harm? What is the sequence of events that have brought us to the present?

Where does the story start? It’s something I have wrestled with for a long time. I did not give too much thought to Germany (except for their role in World Wars I and II) until my brother was stationed there in 1984. I had maybe seen some news stories about the Red Army Faction, but I would read them then forget about them. For me, for a few years after his death, the story of the RAF started with them killing Eddie on August 8, 1985.

It was only when I was ready to look deeper into the story that I took a long look, and realized that even though the story of my family’s connection to the RAF started in 1985, my government’s connection to the RAF started years before, and that my brother was the victim of someone else’s possibly righteous anger, even though he himself did nothing to deserve it.

But perhaps that what so much international conflict is about: governments have fights and ordinary people feel the pain of it in our daily lives. I don’t need to stay complacent, though, and I can look for places to learn about the root of some of our international conflicts, and to look for meaningful spots to intervene.

I’ve contacted by congressional delegation from time to time to encourage a diplomatic, non-escalating approach to normalizing relations with Iran. Because I know that the story doesn’t just start and end with the hostage-taking of 1979.

The harm of our current broken relationship with Iran is mostly felt in the daily lives of the people of Iran, who have to deal with the effects of sanctions. It’s mostly hidden from our view. But if you want to know about what we should be doing with Iran, here’s some good sources of information:


In addition to all the places on the web you can read about the 1953 coup, I highly recommend William Blum’s book, Killing Hope (I wish I could say it’s ironically named, but it’s not). It’s a fairly comprehensive list of American military and covert intervention since World War II.

When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, Killing Hope a great resource to figure out that the story probably doesn’t start when you think it does.

Gun Violence News Prison and Criminal Justice

Remember: a criminal conviction is not justice

HK_Central_Statue_Square_Legislative_Council_Building_n_Themis_sWhen I found out that George Zimmerman had been acquitted of all charges in the death of Trayvon Martin, I had the feeling of having someone reach in and pull my stomach out of my body.

Then I realized something was wrong.

I couldn’t believe that I was the person hoping that Zimmerman would be convicted of murder because I am someone that knows that a criminal conviction is not all that it’s cracked up to be. I am someone who has worked against the expansion of prisons for a significant part of my adult life. I know that when it comes to young black men, prisons are one of the most harmful institutions in their lives, and pretty much all of our lives because they drain our families and communities.

I am not someone who roots for someone to go to prison. Ever. Not even in the murder of my only brother, Eddie.

Many years after my brother’s murder in 1985, two different people were convicted of the crime. The circumstances of my brother’s murder are nothing like Tryavon Martin’s, except that like Trayvon Martin’s murder (and many others) people get preoccupied with whether or not the killing was justified. And that my brother was also killed by a single bullet, fired by someone at close range.

No one has ever been convicted of specifically shooting my brother. Two people have been convicted of being central to the crime (and two more deaths related to my brother’s), and between the two of them, they spent decades in prison. It turned out that that didn’t matter when it comes to dealing with the aftermath of murder.

So then what does matter after murder? That a wonderful young man is dead, never able to have a long full life. That my family needed counseling and assistance and my mother needed an extended break from her job that she did not receive until years later, when her employer told her, “you haven’t really been the same since your son died,” and let her go after almost 20 years.

What mattered is that in our immediate community, people looked for places to be kind. It has mattered every time someone has told us he did not deserved to be killed. (Although over time, I’ve encountered people who have various explanations for why he deserved to die.)

So I know what matters and what doesn’t, yet somehow here I was, horribly sad, that Zimmerman wasn’t convicted of a crime. I felt hollow and manipulated.

Like many people, I have been “trained” to think that a criminal conviction for murder is “justice being served.” But a criminal conviction isn’t justice. Justice is when every mother’s child is valued and every family gets support after a violent death.

Yes, in my mind, that means Trayvon Martin and also George Zimmerman. Both of them, and both their families. The current system requires us to value one of these young men over the other — it requires us to punish Zimmerman to show that Martin was a valued human being.

That absolutely doesn’t mean that Zimmerman gets a pass. He does not deny that he shot Trayvon Martin, and so now he has something to make right. And although I have known some people to find ways to do positive things while they were incarcerated, what Zimmerman has to make right is out here in the world.

Our current system pushes Zimmerman to say, over and over again “I was justified” so that he doesn’t have to go to prison, and that isn’t justice. It doesn’t help us get to the truth of what happened when he could literally lose years of his life in prison for being honest about it. The threat of imprisonment is a driving force in discussions of far too many murders.

Tayvon Martin’s life mattered, and it’s not at all surprising that this court could not re-affirm that. Our current court system cannot reaffirm that for young black men. When it requires us to wish for another young man to go to prison to show that Martin was someone’s precious son, it’s especially broken.

I understand that the women on the jury were not thinking about the flaws of our system when they acquitted him. They were just going through the motions of what our system does when a person is killed — this unreasonable weighing and comparison of the lives and value of two people.

And we need to remember that this system doesn’t work. Guilty or innocent, there is much for us to do to make it better. There will be many opportunities for people to take action that matters — to listen to the grief of the Martin family, to listen to the fears and concerns of other families who have experienced murder (there’s no shortage, remember, of families who have experienced murder). To take on racist policing practices that presume guilt in young people of color, to start talking more about what reasonable responsibility looks like for anyone who leaves their home carrying a gun.

I have a certain dread I feel for all the young black boys and men I know, and their justified fear that we are drawing the outline of a target on them. And all of the parents of black youth, who live with fear for their children. And my sadness, of course, for the parents, family and community of Trayvon Martin, dead at 17.

And I need to remember that this broken jury system is not what tells me that Trayvon Martin and other young boys matter, and that I can’t reasonably hope for the system to show he was a valuable person by punishing George Zimmerman. Instead, I need to focus on what does matter.

We hold the truth of that, of what’s real and what matters, in the way to treat both these families over time, in the way that we set up alternatives that stop directing young black men into this prison pipeline. I need to remember (and to have my allies remind me) that this empty feeling I have when I don’t get the satisfaction of a conviction is just something that I’ve been trained to look for, and I need to remember what I really value. Instead, I need to not be satisfied, and to stay active working to change this system.

I spent over 20 years looking into the grieving eyes of my mother after my brother’s death. The two criminal convictions had provided a fleeting comfort to her, but eventually she realized that the people who were serving time in prison were someone else’s children. That part of her heart, at least, was not completely broken by his murder. And I can only hope for the same for the friends and family of Trayvon Martin, and for all their allies. Don’t let this take away too much of your heart, or the place where you know that everyone, no matter what they’ve done, is still someone else’s child.

A pronouncement from a judge in a system that doesn’t work would’ve just been a fleeting satisfaction, and not what matters. Instead, I have work to do.

Movies News Prison and Criminal Justice

Yes, this is like Minority Report, but not like you think

How awful to use the phrase, “cannibal cop” but if you’re in NYC, odds are you know what I’m talking about: Gilberto Valle, convicted this week for conspiracy to commit kidnapping. I can’t comment on any of the specifics of the case, although it is true that the phrase “ugly thoughts” doesn’t begin to describe how repulsive his actions were prior to his arrest, and he is not denying his actions as part of his legal defense.

My big complaint about most of the mature public dialog (setting aside all the lurid news coverage that is just for shock value) is that it’s still mired in a false dichotomy. The two presumed choices are:

1- He should be punished harshly (in this case, a single conviction can possibly lead to a life sentence in prison) because what he was doing is really messed up, or

2- Whether there should be no consequence at all for starting to possibly lay the groundwork for a horrific set of crimes because he hadn’t yet actually tortured and killed anyone.

Let’s be honest: #2 is simultaneously weak and horrifying when you factor in any of the real-life women on his list. Option #2 mostly makes sense to people who are not the target of someone’s hateful planning, and by the way, pretty much cedes the ground that we should never try to prevent a crime. And that’s where the problem comes up: option #2 is pretty repellant, so it suddenly makes option #1 seem like the only real option. Except then we’re punishing people for horrible things they haven’t actually done.

There’s a similar dichotomy presented in the 2002 movie “Minority Report” (inspired by the Philip K Dick short story of the same name, but I didn’t read the short story). I loved that movie (so did Roger Ebert). In the movie, cops in the future arrest people for murders they haven’t yet committed, and so that produces the central dilemma: is it ethical to punish people for things they haven’t actually done? But murder is bad, and if we can prevent a murder, we should, so it seems like the cops should do this… and there are many futuristic gadgets as well to make it a great movie adventure.

But the movie presents the same damaging falsehood: that even if we can prevent crimes, somebody has to pay. And in the case of a conspiracy crime or Minority Report’s pre-crime, a harsh punishment is justified because the crime would’ve been horrible. In the movie, people are intercepted as they are about to commit murders, then placed in a drugged stasis an underground prison where they relive the murders in their minds in perpetuity (in the movie it’s called being “haloed”). So the movie plot revolves around ending the program that prevents murder, because these harsh punishments make no sense if a person could possibly not commit the crime. Which is true — a harsh punishment doesn’t make sense if a person hasn’t actually committed a crime.

But the problem is what we’re ignoring here, a different choice:

3 – We have to intervene to prevent crime, to remove someone from the situation, and we have to do so in a way where no one, including the perpetrator, gets hurt.

There could be an effective intervention that prevents the crime but isn’t based on a harsh punishment or a long prison sentence. There’s an article on Slate that comes close to arguing that Valle may actually need mental health treatment, but most discussions about the Valle case don’t even mention that possibility.

Because yes, something should happen when someone — especially a police officer — spends their spare time talking about torturing and killing his wife and other women he knows. (For starters, she should be able to get a divorce if she wants one.) He should not have a job where he is armed and has the right to stop and detain people. He should get help — non-judgmental, effective help that is non-optional for him. He may need monitoring for an extended period of time, and help finding the right job. It’s possible that some of this will be unpleasant and uncomfortable for him. But it doesn’t have to be deliberately punitive.

But in real life, though, there is little talk of this third option. Because this case is handled by our criminal justice system, prosecutors respond as they generally do: with a prosecution focused on getting as long of a prison sentence as possible. And then we wind up talking about civil liberties and “was this really just a case of someone paying a high price for having bad thoughts?”

Really, we should be talking about how to prevent violence against women in general, these women in particular, what to do about online communities where people may be conspiring to murder women, and how to respond effectively to the threat of violence in a family with something other than a prison sentence.

As long as the choice is between something and nothing as a response to the threat of violence, many reasonable people will favor doing something. But it should be something that is still fair and just to all involved, not just the empty victory of someone spending life in prison.

The image is a still from the 2002 film, Minority Report.

Movies Prison and Criminal Justice

What was really missing from the movie “Lincoln”

Like many people, I found the movie Lincoln absorbing. And, overall, there were two glaring omissions that pained me.

First off, yes, I was transported by the great performances by the lead actors, and a bunch of the supporting cast as well (I especially liked Tommy Lee Jones as the white abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens).

I would have been even more absorbed if the two great African-American actresses in the supporting cast (S. Epatha Merkerson and Gloria Reuben) could’ve gotten more than a handful of lines between them. Saving up the revelation of the existence of Lydia Hamilton Smith was a bit insulting to me. Her character is less than a footnote to the whole story.

This movie can be placed squarely in the category of “movies about how white people ended slavery while Black folks looked on.” The gratuitous opening dialogue between Lincoln and two African-American soldiers aside, there is little in the film showing even a Black face, much less the leadership of anyone other than white people in the political and social changes that propelled the 13th Amendment forward.

The other omission is how the 13th Amendment brought us one of the greatest problems of our era: our country’s role as the biggest jailer the world has ever seen. Although on the surface the 13th Amendment appeared to eliminate slavery from the U.S. Constitution, many modern-day activists have noted that it wrote slavery into the Constitution:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (emphasis added)

Once it became clear that convicting individuals of a crime would offer an opportunity to treat people like slaves, all sorts of laws came into existence that could be applied to people based on the discretion of police and prosectors. From the Black Codes to Jim Crow to our modern War on Drugs (a war that criminalizes Black and Latino drug users out of the proportion to the rates that Black and Latino people are addicted to drugs), we’ve seen a full court press of this strategy for over 100 years.

This push to “convict people of crimes” so that we can maintain a conviction-based caste system has horrible effects on Black and Brown communities in this country. The 13th Amendment didn’t just “end” slavery — it also laid the groundwork for where we are now.

The 13th Amendment is a critical part of American experience, and I’m glad that people with great cultural influence made a movie about it. But from my vantage point, these omissions are glaring. Since Tony Kushner has already made clear he’s indifferent to criticism about his inaccurate depiction of the roll vote for the 13th Amendment, I think it’s unlikely he will ever move to address these omissions from the story, or craft a more complex, less “white” story about how that moment in history has brought us to the moment we are in today.

If you happen to know a better film about the 13th Amendment, let me know so I can go see it.