"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
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Each year, the U.S. State Department, as required by law, issues a “Human Rights Report” which details abuses by other countries. To call it an exercise in hypocrisy is to understate the case: it is almost impossible to find any tyrannical power denounced by the State Department which the U.S. Government (and its closest allies) do not regularly exercise itself. Indeed, it’s often impossible to imagine how the authors of these reports can refrain from cackling mischievously over the glaring ironies of what they are denouncing (my all-time favorite example is discussed in the update here).
In 2010, the State Department included a long section on the oppressive detention practices of China. The “principal human rights problems” of the tyrannical Chinese government include “a lack of due process in judicial proceedings” and “the use of administrative detention.” Indeed, “arbitrary arrest and detention remained serious problems. The law grants police broad administrative detention powers and the ability to detain individuals for extended periods without formal arrest or criminal charges.” Can one even find the words to condemn these Chinese monsters?
Time‘s Tony Karon today writes about the case of Khader Adnan, a 33-year-old Palestinian baker currently imprisoned without charges by the Israeli government on accusations that he is a spokesman for Islamic Jihad. To protest his due-process-free imprisonment and that of thousands of other Palestinians, Adnan has been on a sustained hunger strike and is now close to death. Karon writes:
Israel has not charged Adnan with any crime . . . Israel deals with such cases using a legal framework based on emergency laws left over from British colonial rule to detain any suspect for six months at a time without needing to provide evidence or lay charges against them. When a detainee’s six-month spell has expired, the detention can simply be renewed.
Writing today about the Adnan case in The National, Joseph Dana explains that Israel imprisons Adnan and so many like him pursuant to “a framework of laws and statutes to govern all aspects of life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” and “many, if not most, of the laws governing movement of Palestinians, freedom of speech and association are draconian in nature; none is more alarming than the administrative detention order. The order enables Israel to hold prisoners indefinitely without charging them or allowing them to stand trial.” Behold the principles of justice driving this Israeli behavior:
Mr Adnan’s story is emblematic of the administrative detention experience of many Palestinians. He claims to have been beaten and humiliated by Israeli soldiers while in custody, and began his hunger strike in protest. On January 8, Mr Adnan was given a four-month administrative detention order, which can be renewed indefinitely, after a military judge reviewed classified information against him. Evidence and allegations have not been made available to Adnan or to his lawyer.
According to the Israeli military, information in administrative detention cases is kept classified in order to protect sources of intelligence. To this day, the only claim that Israel has made about Mr Adnan’s detention is that he is a high risk to Israeli security.
Of course, the U.S. has its own system of indefinite detention now firmly in place. Both within war zones and outside of them, the Obama administration continues to hold hundreds of prisoners who have never been charged with any crime even as they have remained captive for many years. Put another way, both the U.S. and its closest client state have completely normalized exactly the type of arbitrary, due-process-free imprisonment the U.S. has long condemned as the defining attribute of despotism. And, of course, the U.S. Congress just enacted, and President Obama just signed, a law that expressly permits indefinite detention.
Worse, these countries have normalized this practice not merely in terms of government policy, but also the expectations of their own citizens. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found widespread support across the American ideological spectrum for maintaining Guantanamo, where more than 150 prisoners are still held without any charges of any kind, while Dana today writes that “to date, Mr Adnan’s hunger strike has stirred little debate in the Israeli press about the legitimacy of administrative detention” (this is the seventh time Adnan has been imprisoned without charges). The hallmark of the Supremely Authoritarian Citizen — dutifully reciting unproven Government accusations as Truth to justify due-process-free punishment (he’s a Terrorist!) — is now extremely commonplace in the citizenries of both countries.
Even random glances at State Department Human Rights reports will lead one to the most suffocatingly hypocritical denunciations by the U.S. Government. It condemns China, for instance, for the harsh detention conditions of one detainee who “was repeatedly subjected to solitary confinement. . . . The longest period of such confinement reportedly lasted 11 months.” Accused WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning, convicted of no crime, spent 10 months in extreme solitary confinement; the U.S. prison industry is teeming with prisoners who are subjected to this abuse (as one American held for 10 years in solitary confinement by China put it last month in an Op-Ed: “Imagine how shocked I was to find years later that we, the United States of America, hold more human beings in long-term solitary confinement than any other country in the world. I had supposed it would be China — but, no, it’s us”); meanwhile, Israel routinely uses harsh solitary confinement for Palestinian prisoners and even places Palestinian children in solitary confinement for weeks on end.
The State Department report on China also accuses the Communist state of “extrajudicial killings, including executions without due process.” That, of course, is exactly what the Obama administration has been doing continuously with its manic fixation on drone murders in at least six Muslim countries and its targeted, due-process-free execution of its own citizens (and their children). Again, not only does this provoke very little controversy among Americans, this power long cited by the State Department as the ultimate indiciator of tyranny — “executions without due process” — now provokes widespread cheers from majorities of all American political factions. Israel, of course, has been using due-process-free “targeted assassinations” for many years.
What’s so notable here isn’t merely that the U.S. and Israel are engaged in the very practices which the U.S. annually and flamboyantly condemns as “human rights abuses” when done by others. It’s that these abuses have now been going on for so long in the two countries, are so entrenched, that they have been absorbed into the political landscape as barely noticed accoutrements. They have become completely normalized — not just legally and politically but culturally – to the point where they are scarcely controversial.
Earlier today, Foreign Policy Managing Editor Blake Hounshell wrote about the Palestinian hunger striker: “If Khader Adnan is really a member of Islamic Jihad, he should be charged and tried in court. If he’s committed no crime, release him.” That this even needs to be said at all is a potent sign of how severely our conceptions of justice have collapsed (just like: the U.S. Government shouldn’t be executing its own citizens based on the secret orders of the President without any due process). But even more telling is that it is the objections to these practices, rather than the practices themselves, that are considered fringe and radical. That’s because tyrannical practices, when acquiesced to for a long enough time, become norms, and only radicals, by definition, object to those.
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The U.S. last year also denounced China because “police surveillance, harassment and detentions of activists increased around politically sensitive events”; because “Internet users at cafes were often subject to surveillance”; and because “former political prisoners and their families frequently were subjected to police surveillance, telephone wiretaps, searches, and other forms of harassment.” Today, Associated Press — continuing its superb investigative series on the massive surveillance practices aimed at American Muslims by the NYPD, often in conjunction with the CIA — describes how Muslims student groups and Muslim students in the United States, suspected of no wrongdoing whatsoever, were subject to extensive surveillance by police officials, including a file collecting their emails.
UPDATE: Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev appeared on CNN International earlier today and actually faced some probing, adversarial questions about this case from Hala Gorani (the video is below; I wasn’t previously familiar with Gorani, but as soon as I saw it, I knew it had to be CNN International because no anchor on the U.S. version of CNN would dare conduct such an adversarial interview with an Israeli official). Here was the first exchange:
GORANI: So if there’s any evidence there against this man, Khader Annan, why isn’t it (a) being shared with his lawyer, why isn’t he being charged officially, and why isn’t this case being brought to trial? Why is this man being held without charge?
REGEV: First of all, there’s been a number of hearings already . . . . It’s clear that in Terrorist cases, often you rely on intelligence information – there are problems with sources and methods – and Israel, like other democracies, like the United States, like Great Britain, there is a certain amount of discretion you have. But I think it’s important to say here, if I might, that this man is a self-professed leader in Islamic Jihad . . . .
Gorani asks several more times: if, as you claim, there is so much evidence proving he’s guilty, why can’t you put him on trial and show the evidence? It’s really worth watching the whole interview, both because it reveals how rare effective adversarial interviews are (it’s hard to imagine many establishment journalists grilling an American official this way, though it does sometimes happen), and because Regev immediately cites the fact that the U.S. imprisons people without due process as the excuse for why Israel can:
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)