Archive For: PeaceMedia

American Media Intervention in the Middle East

Matthew Sienkiewicz is assistant professor of Communication Studies at Boston College.  In 2010, he produced Live from Bethlehem, a documentary about Palestinian media in the West Bank.  TheVisionMachine is proud to feature selections from the documentary (have your library order a copy from the Media Education Foundation) as well as his thoughts six years later.  Sienkiewicz’s fascinating new book on US media operations in the Middle East is The Other Air Force (Rutgers UP: 2016).

My interest in Bethlehem’s Ma’an Network was piqued when a friend of a friend, a Grizzled American Newsman, told me about his trip to the West Bank. He was sent by an NGO, which was sent by the US Government, to help the producers and journalists of this fledgling Palestinian network learn how to make ‘independent’ media. My initial reaction was probably a lot like yours in reading that last sentence. How can an agent of the US, a nation so far from a neutral arbiter in the Middle East, possibly be giving lectures on independence? Ten years later, this knot certainly hasn’t fully untangled itself for me. However, a lot of contextualization has helped. First and foremost, in researching Ma’an up close I came to understand that, like any media outlet, they are free from some external pressures, beholden to others. In the case of Ma’an, executives and journalists willingly take on American-authored restrictions in exchange for insulation from the factional and economic difficulties otherwise embedded the production of Palestinian television.

In the making of my (co-produced w/Joseph Sousa) documentary Live From Bethlehem, I also came to appreciate the danger in conceptualizing any media production, even in the most politically charged space, as primarily ideological. Certainly Ma’an’s creative freedom (or lack thereof) is a matter of political importance. The day-to-day experience of producers, however, is dominated by attempts to work within material circumstances, with the idea of structural change rather far off in the distance. As Live From Bethlehem details, Ma’an’s producers spend relatively little time considering the politics of word choice or the symbolic meanings of minor artistic adjustments. Instead, they spend their time trying to work out a production schedule that accounts for the uncertainty of movement imposed by Israeli occupation or attempting to jerry-rig substandard equipment so the final product looks good enough to suffice in the hyper-competitive world of Arab TV. Certainly, ideology frames these circumstances and provides a long-term sense of purpose, but the task at hand is generally a practical, not political, one.

The Media Education Foundation released Live From Bethlehem in 2010. It remains relevant and generally reflective of contemporary circumstances, in large part due to the lack of progress in the struggle for a peaceful, long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Ma’an Network has, however, grown in the intervening years, becoming an important regional satellite outlet while still remaining heavily intertwined with Western funders, including America. This progression is outlined and analyzed in my recently released book, The Other Air Force. In addition to serving as a sort of sequel to Live From Bethlehem, the book adds a deep consideration of America’s media projects in Afghanistan. Bringing these case studies together, The Other Air Force theorizes recent American communication intervention in the Middle East as “soft-psy media”—an attempt to blend the commercially oriented foreign policy strategy of “soft power” with the military control tactics of “psyops.” Put simply, America has been funding media outlets such as Ma’an and only loosely monitoring their content in the hopes that they will succeed financially and help bring “American-style” media into new spaces. Of course, there are always red lines not to be crossed, as detailed in the documentary.  In media, as in most walks of life, freedoms are precious, partial, and always fragile things.

Live from Bethlehem


Iraq: Angels of War

*Reprinted with permission from PeaceNews

Over the past 35 years, the people of Iraq have had little peace.

The country has been the central theatre for the Iran-Iraq War, with an estimated 1 million deaths, the Gulf War and International Sanctions Regime, where up to 1 million people died, the Iraq War, with an estimated 115,000 deaths, and now the war against ISIS.

However, one photojournalist was fed up with how the media portrayed his homeland.

Jamal Penjweny comes from a border town in Kurdistan, and has worked for The New York Times, The Washington Post and National Geographic. But he was frustrated with the media’s focus on devastating images of Iraq. Jamal wanted to show that his country is capable of more than just violence.

So he created an exhibition called Angels of War.

It’s a stunning reminder of the tenacity of Iraqi people, and of the hope that doesn’t make into mainstream images of the war-torn region.

In the series, ordinary people are depicted with angelic wings – an attempt, Jamal said, to show the people of Iraq that angels are all around them, in the everyday people they encounter.

Jamal told us that after speaking with accused terrorists in custody several years ago, he was inspired to create the exhibition.

He said he wanted to counter the ideology of reaching paradise through suicide bombing – he wanted to show people who might be tempted by extremism that they are already surrounded by angels.

He also wanted to show the wider world another side of Iraq.

“We have art, we have culture, we have life. I want to show people the other side of the war,” he said.

Juliet den Oudendammer from Art Represent said the London gallery is excited to host such an insightful exhibition. Her favourite piece is an image depicting a young child looking through metal bars.

“You see this little boy in a complicated situation, with a really complicated story at the beginning of his life already, and because he has those wings it shows that even in a bad situation, there is always hope,” she said.

She said art offers a different view of conflict, and people’s experience of it.

“We can show a different perspective, and start a dialogue between what the media is saying is happening in these countries, and what is actually happening to these people who are a lot of the time very far away from the politics, or the fighting or actual conflict,” she said.

“Art can motivate people, to gather behind a movement or to pay attention to issues that aren’t ‘sexy’ enough to be portrayed in mainstream media.”


Uncovering School Militarism

Each year, the U.S. Army needs to enlist 100,000 new recruits to replenish its ranks. What is the primary source of Army applicants? The answer may surprise you: high school students and by extension, access to public high schools. As the Army’s official Recruiter Handbook states, “No other segment of the community network has as much impact on recruiting as schools.”

While doing research for our book, Counter-Recruitment and the Campaign to Demilitarize Public Schools, we discovered an interesting paradox: the most important element in the recruiting apparatus, military recruiters’ access to high schools, remains largely hidden to most Americans. State education commissioners, superintendents of some of the biggest school districts in the country, and other policy makers appear unaware of the military presence in local schools. Even a seasoned congressman, confronted about the issue ten years after he voted for the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, was surprised by the free reign the Pentagon has within educational space. He admitted to local activists he had no idea that the law required high schools receiving federal funding to give the military as much access to campuses and student information as other types of recruiters.

These gaps in public knowledge should not have surprised us. After all, scholars have long ignored the way military recruiters operate in schools. Two authors have gone as far as calling the issue a “black box,” intentionally obscured from public view. Cynthia Enloe, in an article published last year in the new journal Critical Military Studies, noted that

Militaries are a lot more fragile and contingent than elites will admit. Hiding that fragility – e.g. keeping secret all the calculating efforts that go into enlisting soldiers and keeping them in the ranks – helps to legitimate many militaries in the eyes of their citizens, and helps to make those militaries look more potent than they are in the eyes of both their allies and potential adversaries.

One of the most obvious signs of the U.S. military’s fragility is its reliance on recruiting teenagers. As the commander of Navy recruiting put it earlier this year, “We all know that the talent we seek does not just come knocking at our door.” Indeed, despite widespread advertising the military option simply isn’t that attractive to most people. Thus, the Navy commander added, the need for “hard work, knowing your market,” and for recruiters to spend “lots of time in schools.”

Research by educational anthropologist Brian Lagotte shows that school administrators, confused as to how to interpret the No Child Left Behind Act and pressured by overly aggressive recruiters, all too often give the military free rein on campus. The result, described in recruiter trade journals and documents we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, is that American schools now have an alarming number of military recruiters on campus. But rather than spending all their time officially recruiting, many of them also coach sports, serve as substitute teachers, chaperone school dances, and engage in other activities normally reserved for trained educators. Some schools are visited more than 100 times a year by military recruiters. This direct, constant access to teenagers is essential to enlisting new recruits.

If the widespread presence of recruiters in schools has received little attention, even less is known about sustainable anti-militarization efforts in educational settings. Our new book shines a spotlight on the grassroots “counter-recruitment” movement: parents, students, military veterans, and average citizens who are uncovering, critiquing, and at times thwarting the military’s “invasion” of local schools.

In the absence of effective oversight in local schools, some counter-recruiters make a goal of closely monitoring the actions of military personnel. These activists are publicizing an issue the military would rather keep hidden. To take one example, an organizer in rural Oregon has made photographs and video recordings of questionable recruiter conduct at her son’s high school. She then used this documentation to generate extensive local media coverage of the issue and to lobby her school board for better policies governing recruitment activities on school grounds.

While not all “counter-recruiters” monitor military recruiters and record their activities, another aspect of counter-recruitment—by far the most commonplace—is to serve as “counter-presences and counter-visibilities” to the military in schools. Typically, this takes the form of a literature table, staffed by activists using brochures produced by peace groups like the War Resisters League. It may involve time in a classroom, when teachers allow counter-recruiters to lead discussions on military service by showing students videos which help them think critically about the enlistment process.

But it is difficult to serve as a consistent “counter-presence,” when the military has far more resources and can afford to be in schools on a regular basis. Counter-recruiters, almost all of whom are volunteers, have to juggle activism with their other commitments and usually can visit a given school only once a semester. Which is why a growing number are focused on pursuing policy change. In just the past year-and-a-half, activists—Iraq War veterans, teenagers, parents and Quakers—have successfully run campaigns to restrict military recruiter access to students (in Santa Barbara, California); and to regulate the use of military aptitude tests in schools (as happened with the passage of a state law in New Hampshire).

It is this legislative approach to counter-recruitment that seems to cause the most fear and trembling at the Pentagon. When the issue of school military recruitment is raised in the public arena, often as a precursor to policy changes that control what recruiters can and cannot do on school grounds, the military feels threatened. Thus in a series of reports over the past decade, military analysts have closely examined the counter-recruitment movement, judging it to be the “military recruiter’s greatest obstacle,” characterizing counter-recruiters themselves as “adversaries” and—in an interesting coinage—“civilian organizational inhibitors.”

All of which suggests that those challenging the militarization of educational space are having an outsize impact for a loosely connected movement of a few dozen groups of volunteers.

As counter-recruiters help to make the invisible visible, they contribute to our understanding of how the most important element of military recruitment works. They remind us, through their policy campaigns, school outreach, and via publications like Draft NOtices, that to cite Cynthia Enloe, “militaries are not automatically raised or sustained, not easily mobilized or deployed.” As our research shows, this means that militaries can be effectively challenged, particularly if activists target their weakest link.


Partnering in Peace, Documenting Occupation

If the mainstream media is paying much attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict these days, its cameras are likely focused on the current round of negotiations brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry. Off camera, Ta’ayush, a grassroots Israeli-Palestinian group who work non-violently and in partnership to end occupation and civil rights for all, are keeping their own cameras on. The group works particularly to support the Palestinian residents of Area C of the West Bank, which remains under full Israeli military and civil rule. Early every Saturday morning a handful of Israeli and international activists leave Jerusalem to join with Palestinians in ploughing and planting fields, shepherding flocks, clearing wells and cave dwellings, in the face of frequently violent harassment by settlers and the coercive force of the Israeli military. A regular aspect of Ta’ayush’s work is to document the frequent harassment and obstruction – denial of access to land, dispersal of flocks, destruction of buildings and arrests, beatings, and so on – and the occasional success – a ploughed field, a lamb being born. Ta’ayush is a small organization, funded by its activists and supporters, and those taking video footage and photographs are not professionals, although adept at posting information from the field quickly. Most of what they post is raw footage, roughly cut into short clips. Nonetheless, in the several years that audio-visual recording has become part and parcel of its repertoire of actions, Ta’ayush has amassed a vast archive of evidence of the routine violence of Occupation. They are, of course, not the only grassroots anti-Occupation activists who collect such audio-visual evidence, whether Israeli, Palestinian, or international (or a blend of them), but Ta’ayush is a significant collator of this material.

The archive is not situated on a single social media site, but spread across several platforms, such that Web 1.0 complements Web 2.0. There is Ta’ayush’s Facebook page (created on October 31, 2009, and as of February 8th 2014, showing 3,289 “likes”), on which many reports and announcements of activities from similar anti-occupation grassroots groups are reposted. The Facebook page is linked to a Twitter account, which had 1763 followers and 1913 Tweets by the same date. Many of the photograph albums of Ta’ayush activities (often stills of video footage) are shared from the Facebook page of one of the group’s activists, Guy Butavia. The same activist also hosts a YouTube channel, as guybo111, which has 429 subscribers, 472 videos, and has attracted 595,646 views since November 28th, 2007. Ta’ayush also maintains a website with a Hebrew and English version, the latter of which holds a more organized archive of activities according to location and type of activity (agricultural, aid and solidarity, information, protests), each of which is further subdivided. It’s thus possible to track activities in some very specific locations, such as Umm el-Arayes, a small agricultural community in the troubled South Hebron Hills area, where the continued existence of some 30 Palestinian villages is threatened by the Israeli occupation. There are 19 items about Umm el-Arayes from November 17th 2012 until February 1st, 2014 on the English version of the website. I am focusing on Umm el-Arayes in this piece as I went there in December 2012 as a participant observer of Ta’ayush while conducting academic research (about which I wrote this blog piece, which has been included on Ta’ayush’s website). There is a mixture of 6 video postings with paragraph-long explanations, blogs or other written counts, 10 accompanied by photographs, and three without, including an article from Le Monde about Ta’ayush. The Hebrew version of the website is slightly different, as it doesn’t include the “information” category. On Umm al-Arayes, the Hebrew version has 12 items from 26th January 2013 until 1st February 2014, of which 7 are videos with explanations, 4 are texts with photographs, and 1 is text only (the article from Le Monde). The additional video clip in the Hebrew version is a report from Israeli Social TV about events at Umm el-Arayes, about which I’ll say more below.

It’s significant that the website includes textual explanations of the videos and photographs because the audio-visual material that appears on Ta’ayush’s Facebook page or the guybo111 You Tube channel sometimes has no contextualization, sometimes does not appear at all, and sometimes only as a photo album with the barest of captions. Of the 6 videos categorized under Umm el-Arayes, the one with the longest textual account is from November 23rd, 2013, on a page titled “An Organized Attack in Umm el Ara’is and More.” The video [#1 on the right] is only 47 seconds long, showing a melee of soldiers, activists and locals. Above the noise an activist can be heard shouting in Hebrew to one soldier, “You’re kicking a girl!”, to another who is grabbing a boy “Leave the boy alone!”, and to another who approaches him as he films “leave the camera alone and calm down.” The text explains that preceding the recorded incident, Palestinian children of families on whose land the illegal outpost of Mitzpe Yair have built hothouses, which are scheduled for demolition by order of the Israeli High Court, no less, had been attacked by the settlers when they approached the hothouses, along with the activists documenting the incident. The soldiers present did not intervene for about twenty minutes, after which they began enforcing a “closed military area” order, roughly arresting some of the Palestinians and Israeli activists – but not the settlers. The clip was posted to Ta’ayush’s Facebook page with captions in Hebrew and English about violence on the part of settlers and Israeli occupation forces, it’s source being on guybo111 (where it currently has 1851 views). A separate video [#2 on the right] lasting 42 seconds, embedded in the text, shows in slow motion a woman activist being attacked by a settler who grabs her camera and smashes it. That clip is also housed on guybo11, where it has attracted 1009 views. But without the longer textual explanation or a close familiarity with the situation and type of events, it’s hard to fathom what’s going, especially for those who understand neither Hebrew nor Arabic. These are short clips from a longer video record, but other than the slow motion of the second clip, there is no sign of editing other than the cut, and certainly no narrative framing, which instead is provided by the text on the website.

The pattern of settler violence and military and police coercion in relation to local Palestinians and activists runs through Ta’ayush’s archive, the coverage of Umm el-Arayes not showing the worst of it. Yet, in another longer clip lasting 8:34 minutes [#3 on the right], the heated exchanges between soldiers and Said Awad, the leading local Palestinian campaigner for his family’s land rights, the structural violence underlying the whole situation is articulated. The video starts with members of the Awad family making yet another attempt to reach their land that has been seized by the settlers of Mitzpe Yair, and being blocked by Israeli soldiers wielding a “closed military area” order (which in this case is invalid, as the camera shows it hasn’t been completed properly). There is some pushing and shouting, but it’s not really the physical and verbal violence that the web page title highlights that’s significant here, nor even the detention of the two activists that is mentioned in the paragraph of text that does provide useful, concise context for the local situation. Rather, what stands out is Said Awad’s determined dispute with the soldier whom he faces almost eyeball to eyeball. Said tells the soldier that he cannot claim to be a “man of the law” as he’s defending an illegal settlement. “Your weapon is your law,” he says.

The story is not always one of confrontation, though the context is. In one clip (from October 5th, 2013) that doesn’t appear on the group’s Facebook page, and is hosted on another activist YouTube channel, publicamir, we see the usual cat and mouse game between soldiers trying to enforce a “closed military area” and in this case a Palestinian boy who evades them and manages to reach a settler boy about his age who accepts his outstretched hand to shake it. The title of the Ta’ayush webpage on which it appears foretells the ending of the event, “You shook my hand? I’ll throw stones at you!”, as the settler boy throws a couple of rocks as the Palestinian boy heads back across the field to his family, while a nearby soldier does not even notice. The clip seems to have touched a few hearts, as it has attracted 11,000 views.

Yet, the most popular of the 6 clips is the most harrowing. On a tense day at Umm el-Arayes on January 19th 2013, in enforcing the routine closure order, the military and police arrested 15 local Palestinians and activists, among them a mother and her 18 month old baby. The 1:36 minute clip [#4 on the right] shows, among much shouting and shrieking, a man being forced to the floor as he’s arrested, and military policy surrounding the woman, gesturing and calling for her to be quiet and calm down as they seize her and lead her away as she carries her baby, while another activist holds a crying boy in his arms. The text on the web page adds some information about the release of the detainees, and on this occasion the video on guybo111 is accompanied by some explanatory text that names the mother as Reema and the baby as Quamar. This clip, credited to Nissim Mossek (who also has his own YouTube channel with material about Ta’ayush), has had 71,604 views. While in this case the video wasn’t posted to the Facebook page, there was a small album of 6 photos documenting Reema’s arrest as well as two postings in Hebrew about the event, and subsequently a link to a report in the quality Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz about it and other confrontations that same day between Palestinians and occupation authorities. On this occasion, Ta’ayush’s social media activism broke through to the mainstream press, though not its more popular channels.

Perhaps, though, it is not such occasional breakthroughs that measure the value of Ta’ayush’s archive of occupation, of Palestinian civil resistance and Israeli-Palestinian partnership. Although the Ta’ayush activists have neither the time nor resources to develop the archive beyond the web site, it can be a rich source for other professionals. Israel’s Social TV is an NGO that focuses on social justice and human rights issues and activism, broadcasting biweekly on a local channel and through the internet. In October 2013 the station compiled a report, mentioned above, on Umm el-Arayes that used a significant amount of Ta’ayush footage, including of Reema’s arrest in January, the boy who shook hands, an earlier clip [#5 on the right] of an armed settler from Mitzpe Yair chasing sheep, and another video by Nissim Mossek. (The report can be viewed with English subtitles here, the relevant segment being at 6:56 – 12:60 mins). For the Palestinians of Umm el-Arayes and the activists, the violence and coercion witnessed in this footage has become routine. There is, however, a bigger picture that cannot be told even with the combination of video clips and tests, but would require an ambitious editing and framing project to produce documentaries about the different local struggles and their place in the larger struggle against occupation.

Whether or not anyone should ever undertake such a project, the Ta’ayush archive, along with all the other social media activist projects about Israel-Palestine, places these multiple acts of civil partnership in a media space that the forces of occupation, and the forces that stand behind them, seek to occupy completely, but cannot. While the occupation forces aim towards dispossession and isolation, the documentation by the hand-held cameras of Ta’ayush shows a sharing of space, a dwelling in moments of partnership that will always be there, and so will always be here. Even if on the fields of Umm el-Arayes the coercion of occupation wins each round of the unevenly matched contest, the civil language of Ta’ayush’s “living together” perseveres and by doing so, sustains an “open civil area.”

Video #1: Palestinian Clashes with Settlers and IDF

Video #2: Activist Attacked and Camera Broken

Video #3: IDF Violently Blocks Palestinian Family from their Land

Video #4: IDF Arrests Palestinian Mother and 18-Month-Old Child

Video #5: Settlers Attack Activists


Richard Jackson’s Confessions of a Terrorist: A Novel

TheVisionMachine’s Sebastian Kaempf talked to Professor Richard Jackson (University of Otago, New Zealand) about his Confessions of a Terrorist: A Novel, recently published by Zed Books. In this Innverview, Richard provides insights not only into his novel, but also the motivations to branch out of the conventional academic forms of writing and the challenges when writing a piece of fiction that engages with important phenomena such a terrorism.

PREFACE to Confessions of a Terrorist [Abridged] By Richard Jackson

The premise of this novel is quite simple: if you sat down face-to-face with a terrorist, what questions would you ask him or her? What would you like to know about their life, their upbringing, their reasons for taking up armed struggle, their aims and goals, their sense of morality, their feelings about what they do? This question is important, not least because terrorism seems to be everywhere these days, and yet paradoxically, we appear to know almost nothing about the people who perpetrate it. It is on our television screens and in our newspapers virtually every day, and everywhere you go there are reminders of how much efforts to prevent terrorism have fundamentally changed our way of life. In fact, there has never been so much public discussion and information about terrorism at any time in history. And yet, paradoxically, whenever a terrorist incident occurs, the first question on everyone’s lips is: why did they do it? What turned this person into a murderer? What is really going on in the mind of a terrorist? There’s another reason why this question is important: if we don’t understand what really goes on in the mind of terrorists, we will be forced to simply try and imagine it. We’ll have to just guess at what they’re thinking.

I suggest that this is actually what we have been doing for many years now: guessing, imagining, fantasizing about what goes on in the mind of a militant. And thus far, if novels, movies, television shows, and media portrayals are anything to go by, we imagine that terrorists are insane, fanatical, psychologically damaged, cruel, immoral, essentially ‘evil’, and most importantly, quite inhuman.

The problem with viewing terrorists through this veil of ignorance, with trying to understand them through the lens of our usually frightened imagination, is that ultimately we cannot help but turn them into monsters and bogeymen. They cease to be real people, human beings with a history, a childhood, feelings, life experiences, aspirations, values. They are instead reduced to what they’ve done or what they perhaps intended to do. And when this happens, they inevitably become a ‘cancer’ and a ‘scourge’, a ‘savage’, an ‘animal’, an ‘extremist’, an ‘evildoer’.

At this point, we also give permission for them to be treated as less than human. Cancer is to be eradicated, after all; scourges are to be quarantined; animals are to be hunted or tamed. In other words, it is precisely because we have failed to see the humanity of the terrorist, because we have imagined them as something other than a fellow human being, that we have tortured, rendered, imprisoned without trial, and summarily killed thousands of people we suspect or imagine to be terrorists in the past few years.

Apart from compounding the original wrong of terrorism, I would argue that this is a counter-productive and ultimately self-defeating approach. It cannot work to end or prevent further acts of terrorism; its only certain result is to create more terrorists and engender more violent retaliation. Sadly, it seems that artists, novelists, film-makers and others who write about terrorism have embraced this veil of ignorance which currently characterises our collective understanding. This is surprising, given that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of former terrorists and militants one could quite easily talk to, and hundreds of published interviews, autobiographies, and in-depth studies with them.

So what’s going on? Why do we stutter and stumble about in trying to explain their actions and motives when they are perfectly willing to explain it all, and when there is plenty of information available to understand them? I believe it is because, as anthropologists tell us, there is kind of taboo against ‘talking to terrorists’ or trying to understand them at a human level. A taboo is an unspoken prohibition that functions to maintain the limits of social behaviour and which is designed to protect society from certain culturally determined dangers. In this case, the terrorism taboo is designed to segregate terrorists and militants, and to protect society from their perceived malign influence. Talking to them, listening to their voices, hearing their arguments, trying to understand their point of view is therefore prohibited. The fear is that getting too close to a terrorist may lead to some kind of infection or contamination, and thus will the cancerous evil of terrorism spread.

This taboo is so powerful and so prevalent that you will almost never hear the real voice of a terrorist in a public forum such as the media. They are not allowed to speak for themselves. A central purpose of this novel therefore is to try and break through the taboo on ‘talking to terrorists’. As such, it treats the terrorist as a fully human being, not a stereotypical monster or an inhuman, incomprehensible fanatic. More importantly, the novel allows the terrorist to speak and have a real voice, uncensored and unrestricted, honest and intimate. Of course, the danger of taking this approach, as warned by the taboo, is that in listening to the voice of the terrorist, we will begin to comprehend their point of view. Their reasons may become understandable to us.

The key point is that understanding – or even sympathising – with the goals of the terrorist is not the same as condoning and legitimising their violent actions. I can understand the necessity of resisting oppression without accepting the need to strap on a suicide vest or leave a bomb in a train station to kill commuters. However, without understanding the mind of the terrorist in the first place, we are left with nothing but our terrified imagination as the foundation on which to construct a counter-terrorism policy.


Returning Fire

War-themed video games that restage the multiple conflicts of the War on Terror have posted record-breaking sales. In real dollars, the November 8, 2011 appearance of Modern Warfare 3, which recapitulates the drama of fighting a global terror network, was the largest entertainment release of any kind to date. The phenomenon is even more notable considering that US wars have fallen off nearly every other screen. With the brief exception of Libya in 2011, the now myriad US interventions and occupations around the planet have achieved a remarkable invisibility on the news and in Hollywood, where the war film has been declared “a toxic genre.” This has by default left the video game as the signature medium for the public understanding of war. Of course, many have argued that the consumption of the video game war poses problems for civic deliberation on these important matters. One might go so far as to say that the war-as-game mode may represent a new mode of social control: a grid of emerging practices and narratives that discipline the citizen and divert critical questions. War game culture has its own set of paradoxes and contradictions, however. While the name of the game is fidelity to ongoing conflicts and the faithful reproduction of weapons, there is a noted absence of the ugliness of conflict – the shattered families, starvation, and overflowing hospitals. There is the sense of alienation in ruthlessly separating the “conflict zone” from the “comfort zone.” At the heart of the war game is the experience of driving an avatar through the paradoxical thrills of “safe danger,” an analogue to the post-industrial West’s uneasy relationship with long-distance drone warfare. And while war games generally align themselves to a nationalistic narrative, there is little reference to the larger policy choices that precipitated the conflict, leaving the player in the curious position of fighting for “freedom” while adhering to the totalitarian and unquestionable dictates of the state. Returning Fire: Interventions in War Game Culture is an attempt to understand these internal contradictions. The film itself does not present a critique, but rather surveys the ways that artists and activists have engaged the politics of the war-themed game. The film follows Iraqi expatriate Wafaa Bilal and his project, Domestic Tension, which invited visitors to his website to shoot him, via mouse click, with an actual paintball gun in actual physical space – a recapitulation of the logics of seduction and long-distance weaponry that animate the experience of contemporary warfare. Anne-Marie Schleiner’s project, Velvet Strike, is a study in how political space, physical space, and virtual space mesh in war games and how the virtual street corner should be reconsidered as a valid space for activism.  The clip included here features the story of Joseph Delappe, who created a media stir by going into the official Army recruiting game, America’s Army, and listing the US war dead in a painstaking virtual memorial.  These three vignettes provide glimpses into the instabilities of war game culture and offer strategies for opening the narrative to more critical questions.


The Wall

This video documents the artwork that dominates certain sections of the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank. Approximately 90% of this barrier is made of a system of fences and barbed wire, while the remaining sections are constructed of 8m high concrete slabs replete with guard towers and security cameras.

These concrete sections have become what is essentially one giant protest banner. On the Palestinian side, almost every section of the wall has been tagged with graffiti. This graffiti ranges from small hand-written messages and children’s drawings to giant murals of intricate design and quality by international artists. The artwork has become one of the major forms of protest against the continued existence of the wall and represents an artistic stream-of-consciousness, representative of all who live under its shadow.

Surprisingly, much of the graffiti and protest slogans are in English. For what is a very local struggle, the canvas seems to be turned toward the international community. Moreover, the cover of anonymity that this form of protest bestows allows people to be far more open in their political views surrounding the conflict.

(Shot and contributed by Ali Rae and Ben Walker)


Innerview: Medea Benjamin on Drones

The Vision Machine spoke with Medea Benjamin, director of activist organizations Global Exchange and Code Pink.  At the time, she was promoting her new book on the politics of drone warfare.

The Vision Machine’s Roger Stahl conducted this interview in Atlanta just as Benjamin and a delegation from Global Exchange prepared to make a trip to Pakistan to protest drone strikes there.  Her narrative of her trip and her subsequent testimony before congress can be found here.


Innerview: Nick Mottern of Knowdrones

We caught up with Nick Mottern of the project in Lahaska, Pennsylvania in September of 2012.  He speaks about his innovative educational campaign and the urgent need to have a public conversation about the Obama administration’s expanding drone war.  Sebastian Kaempf conducts the interview, Roger Stahl films and edits.