Heart of Empire — April 26, 2016, 5:07 pm

A Policy of Hypocrisy

Trump wants to cut off Mexicans’ money? That’s what the Obama Administration already does to Somalis.

In April, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump revealed to voters his plan to compel Mexico to pay for the construction of a wall on the southern border of the United States: he’d regulate wire transfers so that people living in America couldn’t send money to their Mexican relatives—a practice, Trump argued, that costs the country’s economy $24 billion every year. Upon hearing this plan, Barack Obama was poised and ready to set Trump right. “The notion that we’re going to track every Western Union bit of money that’s being sent to Mexico—good luck with that,” he told reporters at the White House this month. Such a sage observation certainly highlights the intellectual gulf between the crass billionaire and our professorial chief executive; but were Trump better informed, he could point out that the Obama Administration is itself already in the remittance-blocking business.

Trump could point to Somalis in the United States who are restricted from sending money to relatives and friends in desperate need. “Somalia is still recovering from the 2011 drought yet is currently experiencing another catastrophe,” Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, thousands of whose constituents send money home, told me. “Current restrictions have capped the amount of money Somali-Americans can send and have made remitting money more expensive. Oftentimes these funds are the sole source of income for their families in Somalia. I’d say it’s a pretty big issue. In fact, it can be life or death.”

Two-fifths of Somalis depend on money from the vast diaspora scattered across the globe by decades of war and famine—money that accounts for as much as 45 percent of the country’s GDP. Despite ongoing civic disruption, Somalia has a remarkably efficient communications system that should make it easy for expatriates to send money to relatives. Thanks to mostly Somali-owned Money Transfer Offices, which move funds through banks in the United States and the Gulf, even remote areas of the country have speedy access to financial support. This becomes especially important in times of famine, when those who can normally sustain themselves are in urgent need.

None of this is to the taste of the vast U.S. government apparatus erected since 9/11 to detect and choke off the movement of any money that might benefit terrorists. Almost from the moment the World Trade Center came down, American officials trumpeted the notion that international terrorism was supported by a sophisticated financial network, possibly underpinned by the fabled fortune of Osama bin Laden himself. Eager to strike back at the terrorists, the Bush Administration quickly identified an easy target in Al Barakat, a prospering Somali business involved in, among other things, transferring remittances from its U.S. branches to Somalia, which administration officials confidently cited as “the quartermaster of terror.”

Within weeks of 9/11, agents raided the firm’s offices across three continents, arresting executives and seizing assets. President Bush himself hailed the moves, boasting that they were the results of “solid and credible” evidence that Al Barakat was operating “at the service of mass murderers” and was indeed an integral part of Al Qaeda. The strike on Al Barakat was thereafter highlighted as an early victory in the war on terror. “The Treasury Department, whenever it was asked to talk again about the financial war on terror, the Al Barakat case was always listed among the great triumphs,” Ibrahim Warde, an adjunct professor of international business at Tufts and author of The Price of Terror, told me.

The crackdown had immediate and dramatic effects in Somalia, where hundreds of thousands of people suddenly found themselves cut off from their primary source of income. For Al Qaeda, on the other hand, the effects were precisely zero, except perhaps as a recruiting aid, because a belated search for actual evidence of connections to terrorism came up empty. Investigators combing the firm’s books for the slightest indication of illegality, let alone terrorism, found nothing. Exoneration came slowly and, in contrast to the blizzard of publicity attendant on the initial raids, was kept decidedly low-key. The 9/11 Commission reported in 2004 that it had found no evidence to support the initial charges, but few paid attention. In 2006 the Treasury quietly took Al Barakat’s employees off the list of designated terrorists, but Mohammed Suleyman Barre, interned since 2001 in Guantanamo—which he described as “hell on earth”—thanks to a possible association with Al Barakat, was not released until 2009.

Finally, in February 2012, the United Nations, in concurrence with the United States, formally cleared the company of all charges, and returned all its seized assets. The move came a little too late for Ahmed Dhakane, a Somali immigrant sentenced in Texas in 2011 to ten years in prison for omitting an earlier connection to Al Barakat as well as a defunct militant Islamist group, Al Ittihad Al Islamiya, on his application for asylum.

This sorry fiasco had little or no effect on the basic presumption that money is, in the words of Colin Powell, the “oxygen of terrorism.” Well-endowed bureaucracies exert ever-tightening control over the global financial system, requiring banks to retain huge compliance staffs lest they unwittingly enable money to move into the wrong hands. Penalties for detected transgressions can be savage; in 2014, U.S. authorities hit the French bank BNP Paribas with $8.9 billion in fines for financial dealings with Iran, Sudan, and Cuba. As intended by those who crafted the U.S. sanctions, the threat of such punishment has had a powerful effect on the global banking industry. “Any time there’s a customer who’s considered high risk or is in a high-risk country, and the high risk is always very broad, very vague,’ said Warde, “then the banks feel it makes business sense to stop dealing with those people.”

The money-transfer system inescapably involves banks, who accept deposits from transfer firms and wire them to corresponding banks in or near the destination country, whence it is paid out to the recipient by the transfer company’s local office. One by one, the banks who had served as indispensible links pulled out of the business in recent years, citing the onerous burden of regulation. In 2014, the last important bank, Merchants Bank of California, on which almost the entire Somali money-transfer system from the United States had come to depend, was ordered to abandon that business by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, one of the many agencies with a finger in the counter terror-finance pie.

In consequence, the transfer companies have been reduced to sending couriers with hundreds of thousands of dollars in suitcases on flights to Dubai. This horrifies human-rights officials who have been lobbying the administration to relax restrictions on the banks. “What scares me about that,” one official told me, “is not only the fact that it means that people sending money might not receive [it], or that a terrorist organization could get its hands on a lot of money. What scares me most is that if that happens and goes public, banks will run away, and the Treasury Department will wash its hands of this situation completely and say, ‘See? I told you. I told you these guys were unsavory and risky.’ That’s the end of when we have any sort of constructive conversation about facilitating remittances.”

“Absolutely,” agreed Warde, pointing to the irony that the thicket of regulations has actually driven money underground. “From every perspective we see the absurdity of the effects of this financial war on terror. The fact is that there is more money underground going to these parts of the world than there was 15 years ago.”

Meanwhile, there is no shortage of crocodile tears around Washington over the ongoing restrictions on remittances, but without practical effect for hungry Somalis. As Ellison told me, “While banking regulators, USAID, State Department and National Security Council officials are all concerned about the remittances problem, there’s no urgency towards providing a solution.”

On March 31, Peter de Clercq, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, issued a special $105 million appeal for relief for those parts of the country most at risk from the ongoing drought. He described the situation as “critical.”

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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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