Posts Tagged ‘Torture’


For the last month I’ve been self-isolating, and have been working on a long-neglected project. Since 2014 or 2015, I’ve been intending to expand 20 Reasons to Abandon Christianity (an 8,000-word pamphlet I wrote 20 years ago) to book length, and to increase the number of topics it covers. The purpose of 20 Reasons was to list all of the misery-producing traits of Christianity in one place, and I was pleased with the result when the pamphlet appeared in 2000, but over the years I gradually realized that the topic deserved much more extensive treatment.

With the election of Trump (with his evangelical true-believer base), the project took on more urgency, and now with the onset of the pandemic and consequent self-isolation, I finally have the time and motivation to finish the book.

At the moment I’ve written somewhere north of 30,000 words, and will likely write at least that many more by the time I finish the first draft in, I hope, late May or early June. The following is the first draft of Chapter 11, one of the new chapters. I’ll undoubtedly alter and expand it over the next month or two.

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Christianity has an exceedingly narrow, legalistic view of morality

Everything which is not forbidden is allowed.” – the Lotus Principle (English common law)

Christians have certainly taken that principle to heart: they at least pretend to obey the dictates of the Bible (and their priests, popes, and preachers), while acting as if anything not specifically prohibited – no matter how sleazy, unethical, or outright monstrous – is perfectly fine, precisely because it is not prohibited by what they consider the only moral code: that expounded in the Bible.

They often pretend to keep the Bible’s commands punctiliously (keeping all of these commands would be utterly impossible), and to underline the sacredness of those commands will cite Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:18: “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” Of course, they only keep those biblical commands they choose to keep, especially those in vogue among their fellow Christians and those most open to public view.

The words of Jesus in Matthew 5:18 sum up Christian morality: follow the law as prescribed in the Bible.

But what a law!

Here are the most prominent prohibitions in the Bible, the Ten Commandments. (This very common list is an abbreviated version of the commands in Exodus 20.)

  1. I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have any strange gods before Me.
  2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

  3. Thou shalt not make any graven image

  4. Keep holy the Sabbath day.

  5. Honor thy father and mother.

  6. Thou shalt not kill.

  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

  8. Thou shalt not steal.

  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.

This is a rather minimal set of moral precepts. The first three commandments, presumably considered the most important by their author, speak only to the pettiness of that author. The fourth seems reasonable except that it implies wasting time on religious rites. The fifth also seems reasonable, but does it really merit being a fundamental part of a brief moral code? The sixth is more than reasonable and should be a basic part of any code of morals – and it’s a pity that the Old Testament god repeatedly commanded its followers to violate it. The seventh commandment makes sense to some, but again, should it be a fundamental part of a moral code? Aren’t there other things a bit more important? The eighth is also reasonable and should be part of any code of morals, as should the ninth. And the tenth commandment is simply weird: stealing is already prohibited by the eighth commandment, so why include this thought crime unless part of the author’s purpose was to control the thoughts as well as the actions of believers.

Let’s see what else the Bible prohibits or condemns. (This is far from a complete list of biblical prohibitions/condemnations, and in most cases there are additional Bible verses prohibiting or condemning these things. Almost everything else the Bible condemns or prohibits is equally trivial or absurd as the list that follows.)

  • Working on the sabbath (death penalty). (Exodus 31:14-15, Exodus 35:1-2, Numbers 15:32-36)
  • Worshiping other gods or idols (death penalty). (Deuteronomy 13:6-9, Deuteronomy 17:2-5, Colossians 3:5)
  • Cursing one’s parents (death penalty). (Deuteronomy 17:24)
  • Rebelliousness (death penalty). (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
  • Witchcraft (death penalty). (Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 20:27)
  • Eating shellfish (an abomination). (Leviticus 11:10-12)
  • Blasphemy (death penalty). (Leviticus 24:14-16)
  • Wearing mixed fabrics. (Leviticus 19:19, Deuteronomy 22:11)
  • And, of course, sacrificing a blemished ox. (Deuteronomy 17:1)

But where the authors of the Bible really get hot and bothered is in their condemnation of sex. The Bible explicitly prohibits or condemns the following:

  • Adultery (an abomination and a death penalty). (abomination: Ezekiel 23:36-37, Leviticus 18:20, 27; death penalty: Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22, Ezekiel 23:45-47)

  • Fornication (death penalty). (Leviticus 21:9; death penalty: Ezekiel 16:35-40)

  • Cross dressing (abomination). (Deuteronomy 22:5)

  • Homosexuality (abomination and death penalty). (abomination: Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13; death penalty: Leviticus 20:13)

  • Sex with an “unclean” woman (abomination). (Leviticus 18:19, 27)

  • Being a rape victim but not crying out (death penalty). (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

  • Inability to prove (female) virginity (death penalty). (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)

  • Sex with wife and mother-in-law (death penalty). (Leviticus 20:14)

  • Bestiality (death penalty and abomination). (death penalty: Exodus22:19, Leviticus 20:15; abomination: Leviticus 18: 23, 27)

  All of this begs the question, what doesn’t the Bible prohibit?

  • Slavery. The Bible nowhere condemns it, and in many places condones it, and even includes instructions on how to (mis)treat slaves. (See Chapter 16). And in one notable passage (Exodus 21:20-21) explicitly treats slaves as property.

  • Torture. The Bible not only doesn’t forbid torture anywhere in its nearly 800,000 words — it commands it: a number of passages order believers to not only kill, but to torture transgressors to death by burning or stoning (e.g., Leviticus 20:14, 20:27, 21:9). One might also mention that the Almighty is more than a bit of a sadist, as witnessed by, to choose but two among many examples, its horrific treatment of Job and its mental torture of Abraham

  • Rape. Not only doesn’t the Bible forbid rape, but in many instances God commands it, including child rape. Numbers 31:17-18 provides a “twofer”: in it, God not only orders child rape, but also mass murder.

  • Racism. There is not a single word in the Bible condemning it.

  • (Aggressive) Violence. Nowhere does the Bible condemn physical aggression. Rather, it commands it, over and over again.

  • Coercion. Again, the Bible nowhere condemns coercion. On the contrary, the relationship of God to its “chosen people” is coercive almost in its entirety, and what is slavery (which is implicitly condoned by the Bible) if not the ultimate form of coercion?

  • Cruelty. The Bible nowhere condemns it, and large parts of the Old Testament glory in it.

  • Mass Murder. God explicitly commands it (Hittites, Canaanites, and other victims of the “chosen people” in the “promised land”).

All of this helps to explain why so many Christians behave so abominably toward their fellow humans and other animals. They’ve learned from the example of their “moral” guide, and think that as long as they observe some of the injunctions in the Bible, especially those relating to sex, they’ll be “saved.” Beyond that, they believe they have complete carte blanche to do anything, no matter how cruel or vile. (Here, one can’t help but think of religiously observant mafia members, and of the Catholic Church which is only too happy to welcome them and take their money. One can’t also help but think of the torturers and torture implements employed by the church for centuries during the medieval and Renaissance periods.)

In response, Christian apologists would point out that there are many passages in the New Testament, especially those purporting to be the words of Jesus, prescribing kindness and tolerance. What they don’t point out is that in Matthew 5:18 Jesus specifically endorsed, as “the law,” all of the terrible things cited above, and that he never denounced the horrors of slavery or torture. That there are some good things in the Bible doesn’t excuse the many awful things in it, nor its many grave moral omissions.

It’s not hard to come up with a much better and much shorter list of “commandments.” In fact, The Satanic Temple (whose members have been aptly described as “atheism’s shock troops”) has done so with its Seven Fundamental Tenets:

  1. One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.
  2. The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
  3. One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
  4. The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.
  5. Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.
  6. People are fallible. If one makes a mistake, one should do one’s best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might have been caused.
  7. Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.

You decide, which seems a better moral guide, the Ten Commandments or the Seven Fundamental Tenets?


In the face of the almost daily morally loathsome actions of Donald Trump and his regime — most prominently, forcibly separating small children from their parents, locking them in cages, and using them as bargaining chips in Trump’s extortion of Congress for $25 billion in border-wall funding — Trump and his cult-like followers have been whining about the lack of “civility” by those decent enough to be outraged by Trump’s sheer viciousness.

To put this in perspective, The Onion recently ran a piece titled “Tips for Staying Civil while Debating Child Prisons.”

Given many of Trump’s other callous, mean-spirited statements and actions — e.g, support for torture, mass incarceration, stripping away clean air and clean water regulations, stripping healthcare coverage from millions — it’s easy enough to think of other possible pieces:

  • “How to Remain Civil with Torturers and their Enablers”
  • “How to Remain Civil with Those Poisoning Your Kids with Pollution”
  • “How to Remain Civil with Those Destroying Your Reproductive Freedom”
  • “How to Remain Civil with Racists who call Nazis “Fine People”
  • “How to Remain Civil with would-be Dictators”

The list could go on and on.

Why are the incessantly, personally abusive Trump — to cite a single example, remember his mocking of a disabled reporter? — and his minions now prattling on about “civility”? The answer seems obvious: they want to normalize all of the extraordinarily odious things that Trump and his cronies are doing to damage America, to damage the environment, to damage and sometimes kill the rest of us.

These things are not normal. And to treat those responsible for them with “civility” rather than anger and outrage is in some measure to acquiesce to them.

So fuck Donald Trump. Fuck Sarah Sanders. And fuck Fox “News” and all the others who repeat their bullshit talking points about “civility.” If you agree, please let these assholes know how you feel.


(For the last few months we’ve been running the best posts from years past, posts that will be new to most of our subscribers. This one is from July 2013. We’ll be posting more blasts from the past for the next several months, and will intersperse them with new material.)

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A FEW QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE

1. Why do the Ten Commandments forbid worshipping false gods, graven images, and taking the lord’s name in vain, rather than slavery and torture?

2. Why doesn’t the Bible condemn slavery  or torture anywhere in its pages?

3. Why does the Bible command slaves to be obedient to their masters? (1 Timothy 6:1, 1 Peter 2:18, Ephesians 6:5)

4. Why does the Bible instruct slaveholders on how to treat (and mistreat) their slaves? (Exodus 21:20-21, Exodus 21:2-6)

5. Why does the Bible endorse slavery? (Leviticus 25:44-46)

6. Why does the Bible command female subservience? (Ephesians 5:22-23, Colossians 3:18, I Corinthians 11:3, I Corinthians 14:34, I Timothy 2:11-12, Genesis 3:16)

7. Why does the Bible treat women as “unclean” inferior beings? (Job 25:4, Revelation 14:4, Leviticus 12:2-5, Leviticus 15:17-24, 32-33)

8. Why are Christians fixated on the “abomination” of homosexuality, when the Bible also lists remarriage (Deuteronomy 24:4), “lying lips” (Proverbs 22:12), usury (Exodus 18:10-13), sex with an “unclean” woman (Leviticus 18:19, 27), short-weighting (Deuteronomy 25:13-16), and, of course, sacrificing a blemished ox (Deuteronomy 17:1) as abominations?

8. Why is the Bible filled with contradictions, such as “[F]or I am merciful, saith the Lord, and I will not keep anger forever” (Jeremiah 3:12) vs. “Ye have kindled a fire in mine anger, which shall burn forever” (Jeremiah 17:4)?

(See also Ezekiel 18:20 vs. Exodus 20:5; James 1:13 vs. Genesis 22:1; Matthew 6:19 vs. Proverbs 15:6; Exodus 21:23-25 vs. Matthew 5:39; Proverbs 3:13 vs. Ecclesiastes  1:18; Ecclesiastes 1:4 vs. 2 Peter 3:10; Matthew 10:34 vs. Matthew 26:52; John 5:31 vs. John 8:18; John 5:28-29 vs. Job 7:9; John 10:30 vs. John 14:28; and Genesis 32:30 vs. John 1:18 vs. Exodus 33:23).

10. If these blatant contradictions are the result of mistranslation, why should any other part of the Bible be more reliable?

11. Why does the Bible mention only plants and animals found in the region familiar to its authors?

12. Did the same god who created sunsets, hummingbirds, and butterflies also create cockroaches, scabies, Donald Trump, and Bill O’Reilly? (Helpful hint: google O’Reilly falafel.)

13. What happened to all of the water after the great flood? (If all of the ice on Earth melted, it would raise the sea level by less than a hundred meters.)

14. Why does the Bible command “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18)? (See also Leviticus 20:27.)

15. Why does the Bible command the murder of EMTs, firemen, nurses, doctors, convenience store clerks, and everyone else who works on the sabbath? (Exodus 35:1-2, Exodus 31:14-15, Numbers 15:32-36)

16. Why does the Bible command the murder of rebellious children? (Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Leviticus 20:9)

17. Why does the Bible command parents to beat their children? (Proverbs 23:13-14)

18. Why does the Bible command mass murder and the taking of juvenile female sex slaves? (Numbers 31:17-18)

19. Why does the Bible command murder (burning alive) of those who have sex with their mothers-in-law? (Leviticus 20:14)

20. Why does the Bible command the killing of innocent beasts that are victims of sexual abuse? (Leviticus 20:15)

21. And while we’re on the topic, doesn’t the death penalty for bestiality seem a bit over the top? (Leviticus 20:15)

22. Why are your morals so much better than those of the god of the Bible?


(We received this a few days ago from our Venezuelan comrades connected with El Libertario. It begins with a note from our compañeros/as announcing a series of pieces on the current rebellion and repression — arrests, beatings, and torture — of anarchist and other protesters by the “leftist” Maduro regime, and expressing thanks to those who spread this information.

The images interspersed below showing the aftermath of the beatings are pretty large. Please scroll past them to continue reading the interview.)

Beginning on April 4, 2017, a popular rebellion has been developing against the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro. We’ll shortly be sending out a series of interviews with compañeros/as who have been detained and tortured for protesting. We appreciate the translation and dissemination of these interviews in other languages.

Anonymous Rebel: “Organize in whatever way you want, with whomever you want, but don’t be complicit.”

In the first days of July, in the city of Maracaibo in the state of Zulia, an anarchist comrade was arrested by the Bolivarian [federal] National Police (PNB) with the complicity of officials attached to the public transportation system of that city. In order to protect him from physical retaliation, we’re using the pseudonym “Anonymous
Rebel” here.

We spoke with him after he was released from the detention site. He’s currently well, but he was beaten during both his arrest and imprisonment and is under an order to present himself to the police once a week. In good spirits, he spoke with us about how the popular rebellion is progressing.

Can you comment on how you were arrested and if you were tortured?

In the area where I live, the people have been protesting, and I’ve always been participating in these peaceful protests with everyday people such as medics, hairdressers, people distributing free food, everyone from kids to old people.

Everything was going fine until a group of about 30 people, some in the uniform of the Metro [public transit system], poured out of the Metro station to intimidate us. They shot at us and hurled rocks at us, and we went running, with them coming after us, accompanied by the Bolivarian National Police, throwing rocks at houses, apartment buildings, and vehicles.

My arrest was a set-up because [we had stopped] to tell a regional policeman that we weren’t shooting and that it was those who had come out of the metro with rocks in one hand and a pistol in the other.

The aftermath of a beating by Nicolás Maduro’s police

Then to our surprise, we were attacked from behind by the PNB, in what quickly took on the appearance of a battlefield, with tear gas all over the place. We ran, but the PNB on motorcycles tried to corner me two or three times, until they finally got me and arrested me for carrying a bag. They got me down on the ground and battered me with their shields. [Translator’s note: This appears to be a standard tactic with the PNB. They beat their victims to the ground and then slam down the bottoms of their heavy plastic shields on their bodies.] Then, giving us some kicks, they threw me and some other people into a paddywagon.

Later my compañera and another arrested woman arrived, and they took us to the command post of the Guardia at 7:00 pm, where they produced planted evidence to incriminate us: Molotov cocktails, a bag with sharp wire spikes protruding, and the helmets she and I had been wearing. They let my compañera go in the early morning hours, the other woman later in the morning, and they detained me [and other male protesters].

They never read us our rights, and it was until days later that they allowed me a call, which I didn’t make myself, but rather a guard  called my family telling them to bring me clothing while I was detained.

Were you in a cell with other detainees? How were the conditions?

They didn’t put us in a cell, because the jail in that command post was full. There were 40 other people there on various charges besides the protesters, so they put us on the patio and handcuffed us. At 5:00 am they woke us so we could shower. I should mention that I didn’t sleep the entire night, because of the anxiety and helplessness I felt. Five minutes to shower on a patio where there was only a hole in the ground in which to piss and shit.

At this time, an anti-mutiny squad arrived, and four of them, while we were showering, began striking us on our legs, butts, and backs, saying, “These damn anti-Chavistas, we should leave them in a ditch. I don’t know why they brought them here.”

There were two kids of 14 and another aged 17, who they also beat, one of whom, one of the 14-year-olds, when he was arrested they threw to the ground, along with other protestors, and threw the powder or crystals from their tear gas bombs directly on them and then threw water so that the chemicals would penetrate, causing allergic reactions and skin damage.

During the five days I was detained, which I passed under the sun on the patio, they only allowed us to use the toilet facilities [the hole in the ground] twice a day no matter when we ate. Our families could bring us food, but I learned after I was released that the guards had stolen one lunch and dinner my family brought for me.

Here I should thank the Centro de Atención Manos Solidarias along with the everyday people who donated to the imprisoned protesters. I had enough food, but the detainees whose families didn’t supply any benefited greatly from the aid of this social center. We were very grateful for the aid.

How did your detention affect your family and other loved ones?

My mother is 65 years old and disabled, and is in delicate health, but she was strong and was there every day. I thought a lot about her health, but my compañera is the best, and took good care of her. It’s in these moments when one realizes who your true friends and comrades are. Many of the neighborhood people supported us, some monetarily, and some with food and transport. We’re very grateful for their solidarity!

How is life in Maracaibo?

Maracaibo is a difficult city [in which to live], perhaps because the heat makes us so irritable. There’s a very noticeable discontent. The quality of life grows worse with every passing day, as everyone notices. The stereotype of the Maracaiboan is of someone paunchy, but there are [now] many skinny people who are going without necessities.

People have been protesting here since 2015. There is no apathy [in the political sense].

Why do you protest? What impels you to participate in this militant form of popular mobilization?

I’ve been protesting for several years, always anonymously. I don’t like being out front, and I don’t want any praise for doing it; I do it because I’m fed up with the situation, tired of dealing with screwed-up situation after screwed-up situation just to make enough money to buy food day after day. I’m tired of living in a militarist country where we pay taxes to feed those who treat us so badly.

I have my point of view about the protests I go to. We can’t talk about anarchism there and the people aren’t interested in it, the true rebels who put their bodies behind a placard. The majority that I’ve seen only want to get rid of this government, and it doesn’t matter to them what comes after. They only want to get rid of this band of the inept and corrupt. There’s a lot of solidarity in the protests; we’re all equal, brothers and sisters in the struggle.

Is it worth the trouble.

It’s always worth the trouble to fight for your rights, as it always should be; our discontent should be open and should be clear  — we can’t remain paralyzed with fear; it’s necessary to overcome it.

Do you think that after 100 days we’re experiencing a popular rebellion?

Today, July 10, 2017, I think that each day we’re coming closer to a popular rebellion, in that every day the people become less attached to MUD [the opposition coalition] and any political party. They’re fed up with MUD. Today I can say that thanks to this government there’s a rebellious youth, with experience in the street and that, whatever government we’re saddled with, they’re prepared and ready to defend our rights and liberties.

What do you think of the cliche that we shouldn’t support the protests because they benefit the right?

That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen and heard. I don’t got out to play games with the MUD, who go out to protests and ask the people who resist which party they belong to. Every day people become less and less tied to the political parties.

How do you see the silence of many overseas anarchists about what’s happening in Venezuela?

In the end, I’ve felt with respect to the great majority of such “anarchists” who whine on social networks and say that they won’t come out [and say anything] because there are groups like the National Rebirth [Renacer Nacional] that are fascist, that are political manipulators. But that’s no reason to remain silent.

It’s necessary to fight for our ideals. It doesn’t matter who’s out there. We need to organize however you want, with whomever you want. But don’t be complicit! Don’t be critical of everything! Don’t be “anarcho” window dressing. Enough with indifference. When you see your brothers and sisters falling, it’s time to fight.

What should be the posture of anarchists in regard to the future?

It’s time that anarchists get in tune with history, get out on the streets to struggle against militarism, against hunger, against corruption, against the injustices they rail against in fanzines, songs, and the poetic fusillades of intellectuals. It’s time that Venezuelan anarchists take to the streets with a clear message and unite with the resistance.

Released political protesters/prisoners in Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela

I also hope for the creation of a serious bloc of anarchists that could become the Anarchist Network, that in truth would not consist of fanzines or music of one band or another. NO. One can’t believe in true anarchist fronts or movements advancing the struggle. It’s necessary to become involved in the barrios, the community councils, in one’s community. It’s necessary for all to say that in this moment, in this totally divided country, that’s broken into two pieces, if not many more, that we ought to take advantage of this space to say who we are and for what we struggle.


It’s official. Donald Trump is now, undeniably, in bed with radical Islamists: the Saudi government. That government is essentially ISIS with oil. (Not incidentally, rich Saudis, including members of the Saudi royal family, provided essential funding to ISIS during its initial years.)

Following his love fest with Turkish president and Islamo-fascist thug Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Donald Trump just approved one of the biggest arms deals in history with the Saudi Islamo-fascists. He just approved a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudi regime.

So, what will the arms be used for, what purposes? Exactly what kind of policies does our “ally”pursue?

Under Saudi Sharia law, Human Rights Watch reports that “adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian—usually a husband, father, brother, or son—to travel, marry, or exit prison.” Under the Saudi regime, women couldn’t even drive until very recently.

Of course, given the regime’s radical Islamist (Wahabi) orientation, there is no freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia; mere criticism of the theo-fascist regime can, and does, land people in prison for more than a decade.

Nor is there freedom of conscience in Saudi Arabia. Merely being an atheist is grounds for execution, though the more usual punishments are imprisonment and/or torture (flogging) that can result in permanent physical damage.

And, yes, Saudi Arabia judicially murders a large number of people; it has one of the highest execution rates in the world.

Saudi crimes extend beyond Saudi Arabia’s borders. In addition to helping to finance ISIS and providing 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, the Saudis currently commit war crimes in Yemen, including bombing funerals, hospitals, and other civilian targets, and “double tap” bombing, in which the Saudis bomb the same target shortly after first hitting it, in order to kill and maim rescue workers.

These are the Islamist monsters Trump just armed to the teeth.

Actions speak louder than words, and despite Trump’s anti-Islamist rhetoric, his actions betray him. He’ll stir up hatred against powerless refugees, but he kisses the cheeks (both kinds) of oil-rich Islamists.

If you oppose radical Islam, you oppose it. And you support those who Islamists oppress. You don’t sell $110 billion in arms to one of the worst Islamist human rights violators on earth.

Donald Trump is an utter hypocrite.

(Of course, all recent U.S. presidents and their administrations have been equally hypocritical. Here’s a rogues gallery of some of the guilty.)

Barack Obama, who sold the Saudis $60 billion worth of arms.

 George W. Bush, who allowed approximately 50 members of the Bin Laden family to leave the U.S. immediately after 9/11, without allowing the FBI to question them.

Bill Clinton, whose foundation received more than $10 million of Saudi money.


American War by Omar El Akkad front cover(American War, by Omar El Akkad. Knopf, 2017, $26.95, 333 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

In recent decades, dystopian novels have become nearly synonymous with science fiction. It´s easy enough to see why: climate change seems to be accelerating, some areas (e.g., the American Southwest, where I live) are already feeling severe effects from it, and the results worldwide in coming years promise to be catastrophic; we’re on the brink of a new dark age under the iron fist of religious totalitarians and their political co-conspirators; we’re well into a period of mass extinction; there’s runaway population growth actively encouraged by some of the “great” religions; modern weapons of mass destruction are far beyond “nightmarish”; technological advances are far outstripping social advances; and sadism and stupidity are running neck and neck as national hallmarks.

Given such conditions and such bleak prospects, it’s easy to see why dystopianism is the far-from-new normal in science fiction.

So, having heard next to nothing about American War, I was expecting a fairly standard take on the horrors to come, especially the ecological horrors. But  American War, which describes the “second civil war” (2074 – 2095), is a far from standard tale.

El Akkad deliberately (I’d bet the farm on this) sabotages the plausibility of his dystopia.

The first hint is the map in the front of the book showing the breakaway “Free Southern States” (FSS) of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi as opposed to the rest of the U.S., with the Southwest mostly part of the “Mexican Protectorate.”

My reaction to the map was, “What the hell? Three poor, backwards states standing against the rest of the country? Holding on for 21 years?”

Very shortly into the text, El Akkad makes it very plain that he’s not projecting possible future developments in the United States, but is up to something quite different.

The reason for the FSS rebellion is the prohibition of use of petroleum products as fuels. Again, what the hell? None of the three states are significant oil producers; we’re rapidly approaching peak oil production; most new production in North America (shale, tar sands) is much more expensive than pumping from the old, rapidly depleting oil fields; and the cost of renewables is falling like a rock. This almost certainly means that oil will go up in price and will be rapidly displaced by cheaper renewables. The underlying premise is barely plausible now and will become increasingly implausible as time passes; it will make no sense at all six decades from now. So, El Akkad deliberately chose an extremely improbable background premise.

Then there’s a glaring–and I mean glaring–absence in the social structure of the FSS: racism. Racism disappearing from the American South in a mere sixty years, and during a time of upheaval and economic desperation? What the hell?! Who, if they thought about it, could possibly buy this?

So, just what is Akkad up to?

The first clue is the title of the book, “American War.” That seems a bit ambiguous, and why isn’t there even a vague reference to the “second civil war”? (It would be quite easy to add such a reference in a subtitle.)

The second clue is provided by the book description on the inside of the dust jacket:

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the war breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, her home state is half underwater, and the unmanned drones that fill the sky are not there to protect her. A stubborn, undaunted and thick-skinned tomboy, she is soon pulled into the heart of secessionist country when the war reaches Louisiana and her family is forced into Camp Patience, a sprawling tent city for refugees. There she is befriended by a mysterious man who opens her eyes to the injustices around her and under whose tutelage she is transformed into a deadly instrument of revenge.

Fair enough, but the final sentence of the second paragraph on the inside flap reads, “It’s a novel that considers what might happen if the United States were to turn its devastating weapons upon itself.”

Close, but not right.

Above all, American War is about the present. (Tellingly, there’s no mention of any technology whatsoever beyond what’s currently available.)

American War is not about the effects of developing technologies; it’s not about an even remotely plausible future in the U.S.

It’s about the psychological effects of the type of war the United States has been waging sporadically for decades, and nonstop for the last 15 years, in the Near East, Middle East and Northern and Eastern Africa. It’s about what happens to people who are torn from their homes, are forced into miserable refugee camps, are under constant deadly and random threat from above, and are kidnapped, imprisoned without charge, and brutally tortured.

Shortly into the narrative, El Akkad reveals that the U.S. unmanned drones are solar powered, can stay aloft indefinitely, rained down destruction during the entire two-decades-plus of the war, and are uncontrolled, because Southern “terrorists” destroyed the “server farms” controlling the drones. This is beyond ridiculous on several counts, and again points to the very high likelihood that El Akkad deliberately made his background — in this particular, the drones — implausible.

Why would he do that? (Such apparent sloppiness is in stark contrast with Akkad’s adroitly drawn and developed characters and his skillful rendering of both action sequences and physical background.)

The point is that the drones are simply there as a constant threat, maiming and killing the innocent, seemingly at random. The point is the constant, year-in-year-out state of fear and anger suffered by those under threat.

The same holds for all of the other horrors El Akkad describes, and their woeful, ever worsening effects on the personalities, outlooks, and consequent actions of his characters, especially Sarat.

This story could be set in virtually any combat zone in any Muslim country. El Akkad set it in the U.S., using American characters, disguising it as a run-of-the-mill sci-fi dystopian tale, simply so that American readers will be able to relate to it on an emotional level.

There’s little point in saying more, except that if you want to understand the psychological roots of the hate and terrorism engendered by America’s foreign wars, American War is a good place to start.

This book is a masterpiece.

Very highly recommended.

* * *

(Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.)

Free Radicals front cover

 

 

 

 


“I still have the two volumes (1,700 quarto pages) from which, 60 years ago, I learned ‘moral theology,’ or all that the Roman Church has to say about virtues and vices. [The two volumes] deal extensively and vehemently with vice, while they devote only 10 temperate lines to cruelty and do not even mention torture. This moral obliquity explains why the Church never condemned torture just as it never condemned slavery.”

— (former priest) Joseph McCabe, The History of Torture. Quoted in The Heretic’s Handbook of Quotations.

Front cover of "The Heretic's Handbook of Quotations