Archive for the ‘globalization’ Tag

Iran election upheaval continues

Trading in their bright green for black, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched again in Iran on Thursday, urged by presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi to mourn the students killed during demonstrations earlier in the week. Photographer Saeed Kamali Dehghan documented the action for the Guardian in Tehran’s Imam Khomeini square:

Tehran-demonstrations-002 Tehran-demonstrations-007

iran(Getty/NPR)NPR’s Mike Shuster reports that members of the Basij, the feared Iranian paramilitary group, have instigated violence under cover of darkness — apparently to help justify a more forceful crackdown against the opposition movement, which by most accounts largely has remained peaceful. One eyewitness report includes a thug exploding an incendiary grenade under a car.

The extraordinary role of digital media in the upheaval remains a hot topic, now including some obligatory contrarianism from the veteran journo corps. (Any hot story in the media tends to provoke both herd-like hyperventilation and a subsequent above-the-fray backlash.) Slate’s Jack Shafer questions the noise-to-signal ratio of the gangbusters #IranElection Twitter stream and points to a potential dark side: “How long before the secret police start sending out organizational tweets — ‘We’re massing at 7 p.m. at the Hall of the People for a march to the Hall of Justice!’ — and busts everybody who shows up?”

Business Week’s Joel Schectman wonders if the “Twitter revolution” has been overblown: “Iran experts and social networking activists say that while Iranian election protesters have certainly used social media tools, no particular technology has been instrumental to organizers’ ability to get people on the street.”

Sure, it’s a worthwhile reminder not to get too utopian about the empowerment of digital technology, especially as the foreign media gets pushed out of the country — but the bottom line is clear: Media control has long been a powerful, essential weapon of the Iranian regime. Twitter, Facebook and blogs increasingly are powerful forces toward neutralizing that weapon. According to Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University, Iran has the highest number of bloggers per capita in the world. No matter the outcome of Iran’s historic turmoil, they will continue to be heard.

Twitter as unstoppable diplomacy in Iran

The Guardian reports an estimated half million people protesting in Tehran on Wednesday, the fifth day of unrest. Despite President Obama’s cautious posture thus far, the Iranian regime has now begun to openly blame the United States for interfering in the election and inciting upheaval. As the vulnerabilities of the regime and its Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, have become more apparent, the tactic undoubtedly is aimed at undercutting an opposition movement in a country where anti-U.S. sentiment still exerts a powerful pull. It seems to have an out-of-touch air of desperation to it — blame the ol’ Great Satan, and maybe the masses will fall back in line with renewed nationalist fervor. The problem is, those masses now see Barack Obama, not George W. Bush, presiding in the White House. (Not to mention the price of tomatoes in Tehran.)

The situation on the ground appears to be growing more ominous. According to a Reuters report from Wednesday, Mohammadreza Habibi, the senior prosecutor in the central province of Isfahan, declared that demonstrators could be executed under Islamic law. “We warn the few elements controlled by foreigners who try to disrupt domestic security by inciting individuals to destroy and to commit arson that the Islamic penal code for such individuals waging war against God is execution,” Habibi reportedly announced.

Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris/New York Times.

Protesters in Tehran, June 15. (Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris/New York Times)

Other dispatches from Wednesday described the regime further cracking down on digital communications. In one particular way, it’s an area where official U.S. involvement indeed appears to have been instrumental, in terms of the extraordinary role Twitter has played following the election upheaval. With the messaging network set to go offline temporarily earlier this week, the U.S. State Department stepped in. The Times reports:

On Monday afternoon, a 27-year-old State Department official, Jared Cohen, e-mailed the social-networking site Twitter with an unusual request: delay scheduled maintenance of its global network, which would have cut off service while Iranians were using Twitter to swap information and inform the outside world about the mushrooming protests around Tehran. The request, made to a Twitter co-founder, Jack Dorsey, is yet another new-media milestone: the recognition by the United States government that an Internet blogging service that did not exist four years ago has the potential to change history in an ancient Islamic country.

“This was just a call to say: ‘It appears Twitter is playing an important role at a crucial time in Iran. Could you keep it going?’” said P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs. Twitter complied with the request, saying in a blog post on Monday that it put off the upgrade until late Tuesday afternoon — 1:30 a.m. Wednesday in Tehran — because its partners recognized “the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran.”

The global interconnection helping to electrify Iran’s history in the making has been on display in myriad ways over the last few days. This morning I was able to zoom in on one specific example of it: After I’d written here yesterday about a UK blogger’s “#Iranelection cyberwar guide” — which soon vanished from the Web and remains missing as of Wednesday morning Pacific time — I’d also put the link out via my Twitter page. By early this morning at least one person apparently located in Tehran had read and re-tweeted it. (See tweet there with: “http://bit.ly/mfo0i #iranelection”) That quickly led to a burst of referral traffic coming to my site from that person’s Twitter feed. You can imagine the exponential spread to follow. Multiply that by millions of other blog posts and tweets, and you start to see the extraordinarily powerful picture of communication.

As I noted yesterday, there isn’t necessarily any way to verify the particular Twitter user’s location or identity — is it really some young woman, a spark in her eyes, now leaving her dorm room for the massive demonstration in Tir square? — and it’s just one little example of precisely why the Iranian regime will not be able to stem the digital tide.

UPDATE 12:30pmPDT: As K.M. Soehnlein points out, the crackdown on foreign journalists inside Iran raises a disturbing contrast. The Times surveys the latest circumstances, and it’s chilling to read. Most journalists allowed into Iran only get one-week visas, and their numbers are fast dwindling:

“Visa extensions have been denied across the board,” says Times executive editor Bill Keller, who has himself been reporting from Tehran this week. “Some reporters have considered staying on without visas, working under the radar. There are two problems with that. First, this is a fairly efficient police state; the chances of anyone eluding arrest long enough to see how the story plays out are slim. More important, in my mind, is that it puts at risk the decent, hospitable Iranians who would be needed to put us up, translate and help us get the story out.”

Many Western journalists were effectively confined to their offices on Tuesday after the information ministry forbid them to report on protests or conduct interviews outside, according to the Times. Some were told they would be arrested if they were spotted on the streets with a camera.

Jim Sciutto, an ABC News correspondent in Tehran, said the Iranian government had “run out of patience” with the televised images of protests. Until Tuesday, he told the Times by email, “we sensed there was the slightest bit of wiggle room and so we took the risk of filming on our cellphones. But now the message seems to be ‘don’t even think about it.’”

And from Keller’s dispatch above:

For a sense of what may await Iran’s discontented when there is no one around to report on it, consider Monday night in Isfahan, Iran’s third largest city and a five-hour drive from the nearest foreign TV camera. As in Tehran, large parts of the city — the squares and boulevards — were scenes of smoke and flames, tear gas, stones crashing into windows, bloodied heads.

The uprising seemed more organic than organized — groups of a few dozen merging into groups of a few hundred, converging on lines of helmeted riot police officers, chanting “Death to the dictator!”

But in Isfahan the police response seemed far tougher.

At one point, a white S.U.V. with a red ambulance-style light raced up behind a knot of protesters and smashed into them, running one over before racing a few blocks to the protection of the riot police.

It may not be much longer before a lot more blood flows.

Iran’s Twitter revolution goes global

It’s been amazing to watch it spread.

“As the embattled government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be trying to limit Internet access and communications in Iran, new kinds of social media are challenging those traditional levers of state media control and allowing Iranians to find novel ways around the restrictions,” reports the New York Times. “Iranians are blogging, posting to Facebook and, most visibly, coordinating their protests on Twitter, the messaging service. Their activity has increased, not decreased, since the presidential election on Friday and ensuing attempts by the government to restrict or censor their online communications.”

The circuitry of the situation in Iran truly has gone global — not only is the world watching, but political and tech junkies everywhere are getting involved in the communications battle. One compelling example: A blogger in Wales, Esko Reinikainen, has posted a #iranelection cyberwar guide for beginners.

“The purpose of this guide is to help you participate constructively in the Iranian election protests through twitter,” Reinikainen says. He offers tips including how to disseminate proxy IP addresses for Iranian bloggers to use, how to help them target repressive Web sites and how to help give them cover: “change your twitter settings so that your location is TEHRAN and your time zone is GMT +3.30. Security forces are hunting for bloggers using location and timezone searches. If we all become ‘Iranians’ it becomes much harder to find them.”

IranianprotestorviaASAt the Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan is keeping a running log in bold green lettering of tweets ostensibly flowing from the streets of Tehran and beyond. There isn’t really a way to judge the source or authenticity of the material. (For one thing, there are regular mentions at this point of Iranian security operatives spreading disinformation digitally; meanwhile, if Twitter users worldwide increasingly are posing as Iranians per above, how to identify the real ones?) But assuming a majority of it remains authentic, it’s fascinating reading. A sampling from Tuesday morning:


Tehran hotels under high security to stop Iranians from contacting foreign press

anyone with camera or laptop is attacked in street

i am seeing tweets about a lot of disturbances, arrests, violence in Shahrak Gharb, any reports?

we hear 1dead in shiraz, livefire used in other cities RT

Very scared, I was talkin to myuncle in shiraz and he was so paranoid.

If you hear the forces talking in arabic..BE CAREFUL..these guys are imported in, they are not affraid of suicide bombing and killing

Police the reason of insecurity; Dead students buried by profs

Basij attacking Shiraz and Mashad universities, Shiraz U’s dean resigned

some student killed by the 4a blast in Babol Univ’s dorms; surrounded by Basij forces

Militia still attacking people in sidestreets but main roads are peaceful marchers.

All last night we hear shooting accross Tehran – everyone is full of rumours and stories – many arrests in night

stay safe and I will RT anything you write! The world is watching and history is being made–we bear witness!

UPDATE – 6/16/09, 9:55amPDT: Esko Reinikainen’s blog apparently is now having technical problems — overloaded with traffic, perhaps, or blocked or otherwise shut down. The above link currently leads to an “Account Suspended” page at Justhost.com. Unclear if or when his site will be back up. Reading the comments section on his page earlier this morning, I noted that his “cyberwar guide” had already been linked and copied widely, including translations in Spanish and German. I was working quickly and didn’t think to grab the whole thing, unfortunately. Reinikainen himself had warned of the potential for his site to go down, and encouraged copying it.

UPDATE 2: Wired’s Noah Shachtman digs into the complexities of the battle online, and has more of the copy from Reinikainen’s missing blog post. How all of this ultimately shapes events in Iran remains to be seen, but there can be little doubt about the rising potential of digital communications for political movements, from Tehran to Tiananmen.

Tiananmen Square erased

“Today, reports abound of young Chinese saying they don’t know or don’t care about events in 1989,” Xiao Qiang, founder of China Digital Times, wrote this week. “Yet all one has to do is go online to the vast number of Chinese forums and blogs to know that the spirit of Tiananmen is still alive.” He described China’s nearly 300 million youthful netizens and their unprecedented capability to express a roar of dissent, despite heavy government censorship.

I shared that essential optimism, albeit cautiously, in thinking and writing earlier this week about the potential of digital communication from Tehran to Beijing. After I published that post, a friend who teaches in the Bay Area emailed me with a striking example of how successful the Chinese government has been at burying the bloody history of June 4, 1989:

I taught modern Chinese history last semester. I had 3 students who grew up in mainland China in my class. They had never heard about Tiananmen. One of them is the son of a top official in China who was heavily involved in the economic development of Shanghai, the miracle city we all saw during the Olympics. This kid was brilliant and incredibly well informed about Chinese history already. He has levels of access you and I can only imagine and is being groomed to be an elite in the Chinese power system. He had never heard about Tiananmen. Interesting to think that a generation of leaders is growing up with a false view of their recent history.

While the student’s ignorance isn’t surprising, it is indeed astonishing to think that even the very people who might soon be running China wouldn’t necessarily know about what transpired at Tiananmen. Imagine Barack Obama being elected U.S. senator from Illinois without having a clue that Chicago had been torn by violent protests in the 1960s.

One place for inquiring Chinese youth to start would be the collection of raw U.S. government reports from 1989 found in the declassified history of Tiananmen Square at The National Security Archive.

Tiananmen3

An overview section titled “The Crackdown” brings into focus the actions of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the resulting human toll. (In retrospect the initial estimates of people wounded, killed, arrested and executed were conservative. Emphasis here is mine.)

The Secretary of State’s intelligence summary for the following morning (Document 13) reports that “deaths from the military assault on Tiananmen Square range from 180 to 500; thousands more have been injured.” It also describes how “thousands of civilians stood their ground or swarmed around military vehicles. APCs [Armored Personnel Carriers] were set on fire, and demonstrators besieged troops with rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails.” …

One section of the Secretary of State’s Morning Summary for June 5th (Document 17), titled “After the Bloodbath,” focuses on developments in Beijing. It reports that “troops continued to fire indiscriminately at citizens in the area near Tiananmen Square.” It also notes the destruction of a large number of military vehicles, threats to execute students, and the potential for violent resistance by students. …

By June 21, the Morning Summary (Document 29) was reporting that, “More than 1,500 have been arrested … including at least six of the 21 ‘most wanted’ student leaders.”

That same section documents how Chinese soldiers also began to turn on each other.

sq_on_fire_AK47sPBS/Frontline has a lucid narrative timeline of the political and on-the-ground developments leading up to the explosion of violence, including the moment when the PLA soldiers began “firing on unarmed civilians with AK-47s loaded with battlefield ammunition.”

On the New York Times’ Lens blog, four photojournalists who captured famous images of the Tank Man share engrossing eyewitness accounts.

“The remainder of the day was spent trying to gain access to hospitals to determine how many had died or were wounded,” photographer Stuart Franklin writes. “In the two hospitals I could get access to, I found young Chinese — probably students — being treated on the floor of hospital corridors. It was mysterious that there were no dead. I understood later that the majority of the fatalities were taken to children’s hospitals in the city to avoid media attention. Chinese officials worked very hard to obscure evidence of the massacre.”

And Chinese officials remain hard at work on that goal today, despite the irrepressible promise of digital technology. As Yang Jianli, who participated in the 1989 uprising and was held as a political prisoner in China for several years, wrote this week: “It is estimated that the Communist Party employs over 30,000 ‘cyber cops’ to censor Internet traffic.”

UPDATE: In addition to the four photojournalists’ accounts and well-known images from Tiananmen, The Times’ Lens blog now has up an image never before published, with a dramatically different perspective on the Tank Man. The image was captured by then AP photographer Terril Jones. The Tank Man can be seen at the left, in the distance, with the tanks rumbling towards him, while other protesters flee in the foreground:

TerrilJones-TankMan

As Times editor Patrick Witty writes, the newly published image encourages a fresh evaluation of the encounter: “Mr. Jones’ angle on the historic encounter is vastly different from four other versions shot that day, taken at eye level moments before the tanks stopped at the feet of the lone protester. Wildly chaotic, a man ducks in the foreground, reacting from gunfire coming from the tanks. Another flashes a near-smile. Another pedals his bike, seemingly passive as the tanks rumble towards confrontation.”

At the above link you can also read Jones’ account from Tiananmen, and why he didn’t seek to have his photo published until 20 years later.

Digital revolution from Tehran to Tiananmen Square

June 2009 could be a big month for democracy on the world stage, with digital technology playing no small part.

With a landmark speech in Cairo on Thursday, Barack Obama will continue his quest to connect with the Muslim world and repair the grave damage done to U.S. standing under George W. Bush. It remains to be seen how much he might also press for government reform by Hosni Mubarak. Egypt is considered a crucial U.S. ally in the Middle East, but more light has been shed on its dark human rights record particularly since 2007, when a video circulated on the Internet showed a man being sodomized with a stick in a Cairo police station.

In Iran later this month, the 10th presidential election could shake things up significantly for a country whose own population is very much displeased with life under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The regime has failed to suppress the use of Facebook and Twitter on behalf of the reformist movement.

This week also brings the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where on June 4, 1989, thousands of Chinese pro-democracy protesters were wounded and killed at the hands of the Chinese army. One unknown man, instantly made an indelible historical figure, temporarily halted the killing machine in its tracks.

Tiananmen

The iconic image of him will again saturate media around the globe in the days to come. (Several versions of it were captured by photojournalists in the vicinity then; the above was taken by Stuart Franklin.) To this day the identity and fate of the so-called Tank Man, who was whisked away by Chinese agents to end the extraordinary standoff, are unknown. (For more, watch this fascinating 2006 documentary, “The Tank Man,” from Frontline.) In the aftermath, the Chinese government maintained that “not one person” was killed in Tiananmen Square, and has depicted the uprising as a “counterrevolutionary rebellion” ever since. As author Yu Hua underscored in an essay this weekend titled “China’s Forgotten Revolution,” today the event is little known to the nation’s youth.

This is the first time I am writing about Tiananmen Square. I am telling my story now because 20 years later — the anniversary is June 4 — two facts have become more apparent. The first is that the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests amounted to a one-time release of the Chinese people’s political passions, later replaced by a zeal for making money. The second is that after the summer of 1989 the incident vanished from the Chinese news media. As a result, few young Chinese know anything about it.

Twenty years later, hopefully the above image and the truth about its bloody context will percolate widely among China’s younger generations. Could the explosive spread of the Internet be the key?

In terms of state media control, China in some ways is a very different place today than even just a few years ago, according to The Washington Note’s Steve Clemons. Following what he describes as a “very candid” diplomatic meeting recently, as well as some guidance from one unnamed Chinese youth, Clemons shared insight about the limitations the Chinese government faces in trying to control an uncontrollable force:

In fact, this young person walking through Internet access issues with me said that Chinese young people can essentially access anything that the government might try and does block. This person who works in international affairs says that the ability of the Chinese government to significantly control access to web-based content is quickly eroding.

And as a result of very interesting and candid discussions with the Vice Minister of the State Council Information Office, Qian Xiaoqian, I believe that many Chinese government officials know that the practice of blocking this site or that is undergoing significant change or reform.

At the end of 2008 China was home to nearly 300 million “netizens,” or regular Internet users, with 162 million blogs and 117 million mobile Internet users, according to Clemons. By the end of this month, Chinese authorities predict another 20 percent jump in those figures.

“Terminals are everywhere,” Clemons says. “The newspapers are actually full of stories about people critiquing government officials, standards, building and infrastructure quality. It’s fascinating — not perfect. I do get the sense that political entrepreneurship is mostly a non-starter here, but even on that front, I have found several key cases where even that form of self-censorship is changing for the better.”

A very relative assessment, of course — seemingly still plenty far from the day when what happened at Tiananmen Square is understood widely across China. But amid the continuing technological revolution, that day could be on the horizon.

UPDATE 6/2/09: From photo sharing on Flickr.com to BBC television, the Chinese government now has a sweeping effort underway to enforce a media blackout of anything revealing the Tiananmen uprising 20 years ago. “The measures came as the authorities tried to close all avenues of dissent ahead of Thursday’s anniversary, placing prominent critics under house arrest and banning newspaper from making any mention of the pro-democracy protests,” reports the Telegraph. “The co-ordinated internet ‘takedown’ occurred at 5pm local time (10am GMT) on Tuesday as a broad range of websites suddenly became unavailable to Chinese internet users.”

Tiananmen2 blackout

But the evolving digital realm apparently is enabling at least some breakthrough: “Twitter users found alternative outlets in rival providers to evade the censors.”

More on the Twitter aspect from the Guardian.

Sick with swine flu racism

The threat of a deadly swine flu pandemic appears to be fading, despite an outbreak of hype that one former CNN reporter says stemmed from the media’s “economic vested interest in promoting the fear.”

But fear may well be lingering — fueled by animosity toward Mexicans — thanks to a rash of comments from some of America’s nastiest right-wing broadcast personalities.

Ignoring news reports that some swine flu victims inside the U.S. likely contracted the virus during recent trips to Mexico, Fox News regular Michelle Malkin asserted: “I’ve blogged for years about the spread of contagious diseases from around the world into the U.S. as a result of uncontrolled immigration.”

“No contact anywhere with an illegal alien!” radio host Michael Savage warned listeners about the contagion threat. “And that starts in the restaurants,” he said, where you “don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands.”

As Media Matters for America reported, radio host Neil Boortz stoked fears of a “bioterrorist” plot, asking, “What better way to sneak a virus into this country than to give it to Mexicans?”

Savage also ran with that idea: “There is certainly the possibility that our dear friends in the Middle East cooked this up in a laboratory somewhere in a cave and brought it to Mexico knowing that our incompetent government would not protect us from this epidemic because of our open-border policies.” He suggested terrorists may realize that Mexicans “are the perfect mules for bringing this virus into America.”

limbaugh-studioRush Limbaugh ranted about an Obama administration conspiracy to use both the swine flu scare and the renewed debate over torture “to cover up the mess that is the United States of America right now.” (One wonders if he’s including Dick Cheney’s prominent role in the latter.)

While such ugliness from this bunch is predictable, it’s worth remembering that these folks have sizeable to large audiences. Moreover, the rank xenophobia underscores an uneasy truth: America has yet to contend in a serious way with its enormous immigration problem.

Obama continues promising to do so, as when he campaigned for president. The task, like many others since last fall, has been swallowed up in the nation’s economic maelstrom — but it’s inextricable. (So is overhauling health care in Obama’s view.) As Colin Powell emphasized when I interviewed him back in 2007 — not long after immigration had commanded headlines in a national election cycle — dealing with the issue is at once a moral and economic imperative. In an hour-long conversation covering much political ground, Powell’s comments on the matter stood out. We should do everything we can, he said, to admit people legally, dry up the flow of illegals and defend our borders. “But let’s recognize that these folks, whether legal or illegal, are making an enormous contribution to America’s well-being. They do the jobs that others don’t want to do.”

He continued: “It’s outrageous for us to take advantage of this population of 12 million people, to use them to cut our grass and build our houses and repair our streets, but keep them illegal and subject to deportation. That’s not equitable — that’s not America. We have to find a dignified way to work through with this population.”

With the swine flu scare, the unpleasant opportunism of the far right reflects how incredibly far we still have to go.

A fevered case of swine flu hype

Will the outbreak of the H1N1 virus get historically serious? According to global health experts, the answer is that nobody really knows. Pandemics tend to hit in waves, and the biggest danger could come this winter.

pigFor now the news media is maintaining its fever pitch as long as possible, of course, hungry to feast at the ratings trough. As one analyst told Howard Kurtz yesterday, “Cable news has 24 hours to fill, and there isn’t 24 hours of exciting news going on. If you scare people, they’ll tune in more.” Still, when flipping past CNBC on Monday afternoon I was a bit shocked to encounter the blaring graphic “Pandemic Pandemonium” accompanying a discussion about reaction on Wall Street. (In fact, the market barely budged early this week.)

Naturally, some news consumers are caught up in the hallucinatory chatter. From an inquiry to Bay Area physician and blogger Doc Gurley — posted, I kid you not, under the headline Swine Flu Sex? — on SFGate today:

Dear Doc,

My husband and I are trying to get pregnant. We’ve just recently “put the pedal to the floor” and are undergoing fertility treatment. Now I’m concerned that I may be putting myself and an unborn fetus at extra risk for the Swine Flu that is wending its way down the pipeline. Included in this concern is the fact that I’ve heard that anti-virus medications can adversely affect a developing fetus, which means it would be a lose/lose case scenario if I had the opportunity to prevent an imminent case in the future. Should we shelve this project for a few months or what?

Gurley replies that pregnant women do have “very mildly” suppressed immune systems. However, she continues, “The fact is, given the way the world (and media coverage) works, there will, undoubtedly, never be a time when the world looks rosy, all-welcoming, and risk-free. Yesterday’s potential nuclear annihilation is today’s swine flu. It’s a wonder, in fact, that any baby ever sticks its head out.”

If they only knew about the likes of AC360 or Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

Mexico, meanwhile, now suffers from a confluence of maladies. As GlobalPost’s Ioan Grillo reports from Tijuana: “Amid a U.S. recession, a fever pitch fear of the Mexican drug war and now an epidemic of swine flu sweeping across Mexico, Humberto Beltran says business at his border city store has nosedived 85 percent this April compared to the same time last year.”

From North America to the Far East, another pressing question has arisen amid the swine flu scare: Is it still OK to love bacon?

UPDATE: As of Wednesday afternoon the World Health Organization has raised its alert level, determining that a “pandemic is imminent.” So too is plenty more cable news yammer.

Mexico’s chilling drug war, at the door

In yesterday’s post about the chronically failing war on drugs, I didn’t mention Mexico — drug war-related problems just across the southern U.S. border have gotten big enough and scary enough to command their own focus. Mexico’s growing instability draws from a complex and long-running set of government and societal issues. But U.S. policy is a large and indisputable factor, and not just anti-drug policy. Indeed, our vast market for marijuana, cocaine and other illicit substances provides the criminal gangs with an endless river of cash. But even more troubling, our lax gun laws and prolific gun dealers supply them with stockpiles of nasty, sophisticated weaponry.

The contents of a new travel warning from the U.S. State Department posted in late February are nothing short of astonishing. The greatest increase in violence has occurred near the U.S. border. And it literally is a war:

Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades. Large firefights have taken place in many towns and cities across Mexico but most recently in northern Mexico, including Tijuana, Chihuahua City and Ciudad Juarez.

The carnage, according to the State Department, has included “public shootouts during daylight hours in shopping centers and other public venues.” In Ciudad Juarez alone, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, Mexican authorities report that more than 1,800 people have been killed since January 2008.

Hot zones in Mexico's drug war. (Wikimedia commons.)

Hot zones in Mexico's drug war. (Source: Wikimedia commons.)


According to a report in early March from “60 Minutes,” nearly 6,300 people were killed across Mexico last year in drug-related violence, double the amount of the prior year. There have been mass executions of policemen, kidnappings and beheadings. Mexico’s attorney general Eduardo Medina-Mora tells of weapons seizures including thousands of grenades, assault rifles and 50-caliber sniper rifles. The vast majority of them, he says, were acquired inside the United States.

Breaking the addiction to the drug war

In Vienna this Wednesday policy makers will convene once again to consider the United Nations strategy for battling illegal narcotics worldwide. It’s a war that is statistically impossible to win. A report today from the Guardian points to the massive cocaine trade out of Latin America to exemplify how the supply-side war on drugs is equivalent to shoveling water on an international scale:

The crucible is Colombia, the world’s main cocaine exporter. Since 2000 it has received $6 billion in mostly military aid from the US for the drug war. But despite the fumigation of 1.15m hectares of coca, the plant from which the drug is derived, production has not fallen. Across the whole of South America it has spiked 16%, thanks to increases in supply from Bolivia and Peru.

Says César Gaviria, Colombia’s former president and co-chair of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy: “Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalisation have not yielded the expected results. We are today farther than ever from the goal of eradicating drugs.”

Says Colonel René Sanabria, head of Bolivia’s anti-narcotic police force: “The strategy of the US here, in Colombia and Peru was to attack the raw material and it has not worked.”

needleHalfway around the world it’s the same story with the heroin trade out of Afghanistan.

Respected U.S. economists and judges agree: Our long-running drug policy with ideological roots tracing to Reagan and Nixon has gotten us nowhere.

If, as Tom Friedman argued yesterday, we have crossed a historic inflection point for fundamentally recasting our global economic paradigm, then it seems the costly war on drugs should be of a piece. There are no easy solutions, but there are promising alternatives to the status quo. A few years ago I reported an in-depth series for Salon examining “harm reduction” policy implemented in Vancouver, whose emphasis at a local level was on curbing drug demand and its attendant social problems. It appeared to work remarkably well.

There are signs the Obama administration might take things in a different direction. For his new director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, President Obama reportedly has nominated Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, whose views on drug policy seem decidedly more moderate than those of Bush-appointed hardliner John P. Walters. As the Guardian also notes today, a report last fall by the Government Accountability Office concluded the war on drugs had failed in Colombia — a report that was commissioned by then Senator Joe Biden.

Truth and fantasy among the Slumdogs

Not surprisingly, “Slumdog Millionaire,” director Danny Boyle’s frenetic tale springing from the vast underbelly of Mumbai, swept the Academy Awards last night. The film was suited to the national mood, with its combustible mix of corruption and class warfare, despair and materialistic hope. The Academy has done worse in years past; on the whole “Slumdog” is an engaging ride, and at times an extraordinary visual postcard from a world mostly unseen by those in the West. The film’s biggest problem is a narrative one, as it struggles to reconcile competing forces of hard-hitting realism and romantic fantasia.

mumbaislumslumdogmillionaire

The same might be said of Katherine Boo’s timely feature story in the Feb. 23 issue of the New Yorker, “Opening Night.” Boo reports from Gautum Nagar, one of numerous large slums squeezed around Mumbai’s international airport. Set on the night of the Indian premiere of “Slumdog Millionaire,” her story traces the fortunes of a 13-year-old boy named Sunil, who has turned from airport garbage scavenger (a primary trade in the slum) to scrap metal thief after the global economic crisis has pummeled the local recycling business.

Boo is an award-winning journalist who has reported extensively from poverty-stricken front lines, and “Opening Night” is a compelling read dotted with insights about the effects of globalization. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder about certain passages in which Boo ascribes intellectual and lyrical qualities to Sunil’s thinking that seem to strain belief. In several scenes she takes us deep inside his mind:

Sunil still did not feel much like a thief. When he took a bath in an abandoned pit at the concrete-mixing plant, he pushed away the algae to inspect his reflection. The change in his profession didn’t yet show on his face: same big mouth, wide nose, problem torso. He was too small all over.

And when recounting Sunil’s thievery at a newly constructed airport parking garage:

The roof had two kinds of space, really. One kind was what a boy got when he stood exactly in the middle and knew that even if his arms were ten times longer he’d touch nothing if he spun around. But that kind of space would be gone when the garage was open and filled with cars. The space that would last was the kind he leaned into, over the guardrails.

From a writing standpoint this is the recognizable stuff of fiction, prose concerned foremost with thematic imagery and character depicted in the service of narrative. That’s not to say that it isn’t truthful to what Boo may have learned during what clearly was a devoted and exhaustive journey into India’s underclass. (According to the magazine’s contributor notes, she has spent the past 14 months reporting from the Mumbai slums for a forthcoming book.) But particularly in an era when the blurring of nonfiction and fiction has turned up some serious stinkers, Boo takes some intriguing risks with her reportage in this respect. We do learn late in the piece that Sunil was to some degree “privileged,” having been taken in for a period by a Catholic charity for private schooling outside the city. Still, given his age and background it seems unlikely that he would have thought or been able to express himself in such sophisticated terms, even to a highly talented journalist who apparently spent much time in his company.

The New Yorker has also posted a video montage from Boo’s trip, a rather striking contrast to the high-gloss footage that just scored eight golden statues.

Apocalypse Dow

Just about every day the headlines across the national media range from grim to utterly frightening. Today being no exception.

Swift, Steep Downturn Crosses Globe and Automakers Seek $14 Billion More in Aid and Florida Court Blasts Through Foreclosure Cases and No One Can Escape the Crisis.
plungingdow

As someone who has written many a front-page headline, I know not to underestimate the power publications have in setting a tone. At what point does the steady drip — or the full fire-hosing, as the case may be — become torture? And more importantly, does the flood of doom-laden headlines itself deepen the economic crisis? Obviously the role of reporters and editors is to cover what’s going on in the world to the best of their knowledge and belief. No doubt the current economic reality is ugly. But the public mood matters, not least because so much of U.S. economic activity is based on consumer spending.

I’m working on a related magazine article right now and have been looking into how the media’s influence on the economy can be measured. According to a study published in 2004 from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, media coverage does have an impact — and sometimes can even serve to unhinge sentiment from reality:

In addition to moving in line with [data on] economic fundamentals, consumer sentiment also swings in response to the tone and volume of economic reporting by the media. Over the past 25 years, there have been several periods when the tone and volume of economic reporting pushed consumer sentiment significantly away from what economic fundamentals would suggest.

In an article published in Political Research Quarterly, economists concluded: “Consistent with previous research, we find that, overall, the media tend to follow negative economic conditions more closely than positive economic conditions.” And those findings were published back in 1995, when media ubiquity and consumption was a sliver of what it is today.

To its credit, National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” tried in earnest on Tuesday to buck the trend, tracking down a relatively upbeat economic story in Youngstown, Ohio. (A thriving bit of technology entrepreneurship in the Rust Belt, of all places!)

Until it soon returned to the horror show: Zombie Banks Feed Off Bailout Money.

Toxic banks one-up bin Laden

I’ve been thinking about the economic crisis as a rising national security danger since sometime back in December, and I’m sure I haven’t been alone, even though scant attention has been paid in the mainstream media — until now. It’s only an odd coincidence that the same day earlier this week that I was suggesting we’d soon be hearing more from President Obama’s intelligence chief on the matter, Dennis C. Blair was in fact on Capitol Hill sounding the alarm. The global economic crisis now represents the top security threat to the United States, he told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.

“Roughly a quarter of the countries in the world have already experienced low-level instability such as government changes because of the current slowdown,” Blair said. (That would be nearly 50 countries. Including Iceland, whose government collapsed three weeks ago.) Blair further warned of the kind of “high levels of violent extremism” seen in the 1920s and 1930s if the economic crisis persists beyond 2009.

The fears have now reached the front page of Sunday’s New York Times: “Unemployment Surges Around the World, Threatening Stability.” The trio of images above the fold are a quick world tour of worker displacement and unrest, from Bejing to Reykjavik to Santiago, where street graffiti declares “unemployment is humiliation.”

<em>Ivan Alvarado/Reuters</em>

Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

Just one glaring manifestation of a troubling global trend.