Hypervigilance

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The NYT alert, after the emergency alert.

On Friday, journalist and writer Ian Dunt proclaimed his exhaustion with Donald Trump. Coverage of the surreal incompetence and permanent scandals of his presidency overshadow what is at play on the world stage – actual crisis, outside of those he created himself. It’s time-consuming, and draining, to have to pay attention to a petulant child whose vision of governance is that of a reality TV show. I responded to Dunt’s piece adding that, while he makes a formidable point on feeding Trump attention on social media, there is a responsibility incumbent to those of us in the professional line of work that is scrutiny, be it judicial or political. When Trump’s words affect policy or translate into the use of lethal force, no matter how flailing the intelligence level, we have to pay attention.

Less than 24 hours later, a vast majority of Americans received an EAS message on their phone warning of mass, impending death. It was then corrected – by a following EAS text, and a statement (on Twitter) from Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. On one hand, this is illustrative of the new lows of which Dunt spoke. On the other, there is one more line drawn in (quick)sand: that the incapability to govern or keep citizens safe, a positive human rights obligation, extend to all branches of government under Trump administration. 38 minutes passed between the first signal pick up of the EAS and the push correction. Luckily, Hawaiian authorities managed to send their own correction within 10 minutes. Thirty-eight minutes is still an awfully long time to spend in fear for those for whom the threat of missiles is incredibly near, nearest than anywhere else on the continental United States. This was another day in the Trump administration, and this constant instability takes a considerable toll.

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Emergency

The Emergency Alert System is, so far, relatively efficient, and is mostly used to warn residents, usually with a local focus, about dangerous weather. The last alert I received on my US number, a 917 area code, was for a flash flood warning (see above). The EAS frequency is also picked up for Amber alerts, that spreads – again, locally – information about a vehicle in which a possibly abducted child would be riding. The EAS has significant potential to inform and hereby extend protection, and avoid the strain on resources for emergency response. It has also transmitted messages regarding active shooters situation, police lockdowns, and anything of a nature to affect the daily routine of any resident. The EAS allows the broadcast on very specifically limited areas, but of course can also be transmitted nationwide. To put it mildly, this is not a tool to be abused.

Other countries have their own EAS or have attempted to develop a similar system, especially after the wave of terror attacks to have swept across western Europe. Applications have been launched more or less successfully, with a view to either alert law enforcement to suspicious activity, to report oneself safe, or simply to warn anyone within an affected zone to seek shelter or move away from windows. The goal is always the same: smartphones have long replaced radio waves, and what would have otherwise interrupted radio broadcast is now able to intercept any signal on any network to preempt further damage or injury. It is difficult to conceive a situation that would be more conducive to sending an EAS threat than an incoming ballistic missile on the northwest of the United States. The context is essential: if weather-related EAS often arrive when televisions have already warned of a problem, or if police activity is, sadly, a regular occurrence in large cities, not everyone has lived through or remember the most tense moments of the Cold War, during which the nuclear threat was heightened. My generation remembers drills, schools teaching basic safety regulations, and has emerged after German reunification with the sense of political terror this generation has not known.

This is, however, the Trump administration, a government that regularly ignores all rules of law or diplomacy and tweets out threats to rogue states in possession of the nuclear weapon for no discernible reason other than the entertainment value on social media. This is the presidency of Donald Trump, where even despots in South America or Eurasia believe there is an exaggeration in bellicose rhetoric. The EAS text could not be ignored, not only because the EAS frequency is specifically designed never to be ignored by recipients, but because the context could have, perhaps, especially to those not in our chosen profession, been believable.

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An exemple of a weather alert for the New York City area, June 2017.

Fear

Something about the EAS is anxiety-inducing. Receiving one while walking down the street means everyone’s phone around you is buzzing with the same alarm-like ringtone. Everyone is alerted simultaneously and this sense of ominous, impending event falls on the group, populated by strangers or friends, that there is a requirement to act at this moment. A weather alert is one thing; ballistic missiles are another. The issue is that, under such politics, the definition of a threat has now largely expanded from what we considered to be an imminent attack on our collective security: it’s not just lone attackers with a van on the West Side Highway; it is the very occupier of the highest office making repeated mistakes that endanger the position of the United States and US citizens as a result. It could have been an irresponsible one to relay this information to a mainstream media, such as CNN for instance, that would have carried the headline for 38 minutes. It is beyond dangerous to use the EAS for something that isn’t verified, isn’t endorsed, and is described as “not a drill”.

There are no more drills. The only use the US could find for them in early 2018 are the immensely saddening fact that school shootings are unimaginably frequent, and institutions have taken upon themselves to teach schoolchildren to hide underneath tables. The United States has been under a state of emergency for almost 17 years now, a fact that has since been forgotten, or perhaps more accurately assimilated in political analysis. France’s 2 year-long stint under emergency protocols and legal derogation pales in comparison despite the damage done. The question is whether Western states have normalized violence – the violence they suffer but also the violence they inflict overseas – to the point that those 38 minutes carry little water in terms of social response. Of course, it was localized; it was also on a saturday night; it was not on the continent; and it was easily dismissed because Trump’s words and actions can be so easily dismissed. It however wasn’t the case for everyone. Some Hawaiian restaurants have reported that people fled en masse, others throughout the world have helplessly tried to corroborate the message. An EAS text should not need to be verified. It should in any instance be sent in error. That this is a possibility discredits the entire notion of emergency, an otherwise legitimate tool of protection, the way the Trump administration has made a joke of UN Security Council sessions.

Should we ignore it?

Dunt was right, as he so often is, but with his decision comes the privilege of being geographically distant from the nightmare that is the Trump presidency. Yet we in the EU remain affected to an extent: that our institutions have to continue interacting with Trump as if he respected his own office, as if his administration and officials carried their work with the expected gravitas. That such a mistake took place a day after we all pondered the possibility of dismissing and “muting” the happenstances across the ocean illustrates that we perhaps do not have that option, and we have a responsibility to understand that Trump’s logorrhea translates into policy. It also translates into formidably impossible hires (Betsy DeVos at Department of Education, for instance, or Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice); that it impacts the safety of human lives in the US and abroad; that it fails to recognize the importance of governance in this day and age.

Of course, many have claimed that the Brexit shambles in the UK could give the Trump administration a run for its money, with its legal illiteracy and lack of foresight. There is nothing strong nor stable in May’s actions but we can’t ignore them altogether. This goes for a commander-in-chief bragging about having the capacity to launch nuclear action at will and believes he can bypass the Security Council to launch a missile strike on a Syrian airbase. This is a crisis of democracy many more qualified than I, including Dunt, have discussed before. We have a duty to observe and challenge, the way we have right to trust our emergency services and not be told we are at constant risk of immediate annihilation. The easiest way to endure is to be selective with the information we choose to read, to discriminate our sources and the energy we elect to spend on a given event. As a lawyer, this piece not being legal commentary, I find myself speechless, and indeed exhausted. As a citizen, I can’t help but wonder how long such a mess can possibly last, as attracted as we are to the Truman Show- moment in our global history.

It’s impossible to approach coverage with a sensible mind: Trump’s travel ban and May’s immigration policies impact directly the refugee crisis. Brexit and Five Eyes agreements are in the way of international security. The war in Syria and the damage done to Iraq are impossible to remove from the actions of coalition member-states. We should not care about Trump, but we have to. The question is who will outlast whom.

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the best of (one of the) worst

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2017 has been marked by symbolic images: of Nazi marches in the United States, genocide in Myanmar, destruction in Syria. Few photos that have featured in end-of-year round ups – Time, the New York Times – have illustrated hope, vision, progressive ideals. So has the written word, a literary record of how the disastrous 2016 has only extended into a nightmare that led to the UN Human Rights Commissioner to lose faith in his office’s capacity to protect and promote.

Below are ten articles that I’ve appreciated reading, that demonstrate commitment to defining what may come to be a historical era and to highlight the intolerable.

 

Making of an American Nazi – Luke O’Brien, The Atlantic

This profile is necessary because it highlights the various complexities of political identities over the course of one’s lifetime. Starting on the fringes of the left then moving completely across the spectrum to the point of terrifying entire communities, this very American Nazi illustrates the banner-carriers of the Trump era: angry, and needing direction, any direction, toward violence.

“The hospitals were slaughterhouses” – Louisa Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria, Washington Post

If we are to document years-long systematic human rights violations, taking place amidst one of the most dangerous conflicts of this era, we must rely on a courageous local and international press to listen to victims and cross information with surviving on the ground. The scale of the torture inflicted upon thousands and thousands by Syrian regime in incommunicado prisons located inside hospitals is stomach-churning. This is one of many pieces that makes denial, especially on international scale, especially egregious.

The Uncounted – Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, New York Times

Documenting the crimes committed in conflict requires a critical and stable approach to data collecting, and a strong sense of empathy transcribing survivor’s story.  If the Pentagon has attempted to clarify the discrepancies between its own investigations and claims by human rights agencies, the truth lies in those lives, those elements, those near-certainties – it lies with those uncounted, because of a category that no one bothered to reveal. The interactive piece compiled months of research and humanizes those we barely see as dots on a screen.

The Unclaimed Dead – Ryan Devereaux, The Intercept

For well over two years Devereaux has carried with him the weight of covering US border security and US immigration police, with increased risk and danger under an administration that has waged war on freedom of movement and right of entry. Border patrols, ICE raids, and the burden of undocumented immigrants feature prominently in the work that, again, is meant to highlight those never addressed, never spoken about out loud, those who died at the feet of an outdated and unlawful vision of state sovereignty littering those dark lines on bureaucratic maps.

A Journey Into the Destroyed Heart of the ISIS Capital – Martin Chulov, the Guardian

Strikes on Iraq were well covered, but strikes on Syria were seen as part of interference in an internal conflict and benefited from much less transparency. The destruction of Syrian civil spaces however, between Russian and coalition air drops, disappeared at an appalling rate, killing civilians even as they fled. A few months before most of the west declared victory on ISIS-held territories, and with Lebanon already processing the return of Syrian refugees, this illustrates that there is not much, if at all, to go back to.

The Ungrateful Refugee – Dina Nayen, the Guardian

Grasping the full picture of displacement is almost impossible, but we must never lose sight of what refugees and asylum seekers have suffered to reach the place where they can live rather than survive. The myth of the “good refugee” endures and perdures, requiring lack of political confrontation, immediate and unconditional gratitude, despite the rights granted to them under the 1951 Convention to fully participate in civil and political society where they have settled.

Of Course Ireland Was Going To Be a Thorn on the Side of Brexit – Dr. Alan Greene, his own blog

It was too late when most of the British commentariat realised that Northern Ireland was an unstable issue in Brexit negotiations underpinned by international legal obligations and the threat of ripping the extremely thin safety net of the peace process. For all the talk about the existence of the border between Ulster and the Republic, mostly from local commentators like Siobhan Fenton, the one that stuck was a half emotional, half resigned interdisciplinary take on border-living in our generation, stuck between the conflict and transition, by a legal scholar.

Freed From ISIS, Not the Torment – Rukmini Callimachi, New York Times

Of all the war crimes and crimes against humanity that ISIS has compiled since its existence, one element has been a painful reminder of the group’s capacity to commit genocide: sexual slavery. Women were routinely dehumanized, but industrially so when they belonged to a group they considered to be unworthy, such as Yazidi. With photos by Alex Kay Potter, this piece gives women who have lost everything a space and a relay to the world at large.

A Most American Terrorist – Rachel Kaadzi Gharisah, GQ

It’s a very long read that digs deep at the American heartland, at its myths, its intentionally disregarded history, and the figures that trailed Donald Trump’s run for presidency. Dylann Roof has been sentenced to the death penalty for the murder of 9 churchgoers in Charleston, SC, and his lank, sickly disposition casts a long shadow over 2017 America’s struggle with a more persistent and emboldened white supremacy.

UN Rights Chief Will Not Seek New Term “In Current Geopolitical Context”

I will end on this sour, bitter note that has shaken the foundations of many of my colleagues and their institutions: the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, has circulated a memo explaining why he will not seek a new term at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva: politics – and political context – have made it nearly impossible for human rights promotion and advocacy in 2017.

 

 

 

It’s been a really trying year

I saw the date approach in my calendar with a nostalgic reminder of the sense of loss I felt then. A year ago, I had landed back at Heathrow in a rush in the hours before the polls opened all across the then-united Kingdom, queuing with other European citizens in the European passports line, a little uncomfortable with the referendum being held in the first place, but otherwise confident. I walked passed several magazine and newspaper stands on my way out, glanced at issues celebrating an upcoming victory for the far-right: an “independence day”, according to Nigel Farage, “freedom” from an institution few understood as anything else but a regulatory body, and most of all, “control”.

Back in New York, expats and Americans alike kept asking for predictions. Of course, 2016 was the year I was constantly proven wrong: I was firmly convinced Donald Trump, for instance, would never win the Republican nomination. I knew Europe always journeyed through cyclical bursts of far-right approval. I wanted to be receptive to criticism of EU institutions – a pet peeve of mine are references to “the EU”, just like “the UN”, neither being homogenous entities – that I often emitted myself. I had been tested, like many Europhiles, by the Commission’s reaction to the refugee crisis. I had been in opposition to a secretive and adversarial EU Council, that Ian Dunt qualified as “shady”. But it was so painfully obvious to me, from the continent, that the Leave camp as lying, over and over again, that I felt confident the British public knew better. We had spent enough time correcting statements that a Brexit vote would mean a withdrawal from the ECHR for it to be understood.
Of all the things I hate (people calling Bushwick “East Williamsburg”, forgetting the h at the end of my first name, anything written by Alan Dershowitz): being wrong. Needless to say, June 23rd was not a good day.

I work in Strasbourg. It’s not Brussels, but close enough thanks to being another seat of the EU Parliament, that the shockwaves radiated all the way to the Rhine. My colleagues and I were at the office early that day, snacking, nervously drinking coffee and checking our phones. It’s not necessarily a strange scene for people working in counter-terrorism. But this vote was about something else. It was about dismantling something we all believed in, although with different degrees of devotion. We were, are, all Cold War kids, children of Mitterrand and Kohl, great-grandchildren of Verdun, Eurostar frequent passengers, some of us coming of age with the Good Friday Agreement, Erasmus-educated, border-hopping staffers. My reaction to Brexit continues to be bipolar. On one hand, I react to it as a lawyer, interpreting article 50, issuing concerns about the Northern Irish border, attacking the arrogance of a bespoke agreement with Europol. On the other hand, it feels deeply personal. It’s a betrayal of my identity, of one growing up thanks and through the European Project – an idea separate from the European Union, with the end goal being that the two should reconcile through democratic, progressive values, pro-immigration, pro-human rights, pro-workers’ rights, an evolution a political finger to De Gaulle and Thatcher and a legal assertion away from US exceptionalism.

I was given the opportunity to let my heart on my sleeve for the legal commentary blog Opinio Juris about Europe, the European Union, the European project, and the fears the referendum brought to light as a Northern Irish citizen. I still haven’t corrected the typos.

When the result was officially announced, my office fell quiet. Sure, the referendum was not legally binding. Sure, the margin was not significant enough to call it a political mandate. Sure, the question itself was vague enough not to give a time frame for withdrawal or how exactly the UK will divorce from the rest of us. There was barely time to grieve, really. Jean-Claude Juncker became aggressive, Donald Tusk chose the bleeding heart route, and all around me, lawyers were suddenly dragged in the spotlight, a place where we feel either really comfortable or really uncomfortable, having to respond to questions for which there was never supposed to be an answer at all. If anything, to me, the UK had entered a historic phase: as a long-time partner in the creation and construction of what would later become the European Union, a major player in its most destructive wars, and an unparalleled ally in security, seeing the island decide to float away on its own in the choppy, freezing waters in the North Sea and taking Northern Ireland with it was impossible to fathom. It wasn’t “control”. It was the sort of “freedom” that one can only achieve when they jump off a bridge, for a split second suspended outside of the laws of gravity, but inevitably about to hit the ground in free fall.

As lawyers, we then had to find a way out, a legal answer to a political question. Immediately, what came to mind was a simple truth, a statement of fact: it was not legally binding, so why do anything? But David Cameron had resigned, and “mandate” and “will of the people” became such imposing terms we outlined Article 50 for everyone else. Article 50 says nothing. It provides a time frame. I started writing a few paragraphs everyday, a mock-diary of post-referendum news coverage, that I titled “Weimar Britain”. Every morning, I would call the hour in GMT, list a few highlights of the absurd positions taken by Theresa May or Michael Gove the day before, mention if Juncker or Barnier had gone for a round of golf, and finish with the weather forecast, the last sentence being, “the UK is still in the European Union”. I did that for a few months, the ritual becoming quite popular in my circles, so convinced I was that Article 50 would never be triggered. It just was inconceivable to me. Repealing every EU provision in British common law? Alienating the country from security agreements at a time of heightened security threats? What was that constant logorrhea about a sovereignty that was never questioned nor eroded in the first place? Everything was baffling, incorrect at best, surreal most of the time. And then I was told, in December if I remember correctly, by a certain British journalist, that I was delusional if I believed Article 50 would never be triggered. A few months later, he was proven right, and I was once again proven wrong.

The otherwise excellent Remainiacs podcast, started a few weeks ago, used the term “trauma” to refer to the feeling many experienced in the aftermath of the referendum. I won’t use the term, because my field of work reserves it for a different type of experience. I will continue to say what I feel is loss: a sense of unity, that was never there in terms of EU-wide political consensus; a sense of togetherness, certainly not correct considering how many opt-outs the UK placed on many EU treaties; a sense of belonging, that never extended to many immigrants much like my parents. The European project remains an idea, but it is an idea I firmly believe can translate if we empower the Parliament to oppose the Commission more and if, really, the Council conducts its work in a less shady manner. The role of EU Courts, so often maligned by UK politicians, is paramount. Brexit will not affect the UK’s membership of the Council of Europe, and the country remains part of the ECHR, at least for now. But the days are numbered: leaving the EU was never about renegotiating trade agreements or “taking control” of agricultural regulations. It was about shutting down immigration, about refusing to implement ECJ rulings on civil liberties, about the immaturity and irresponsibility of removing one state from transnational regulations that provide for medical progress and housing safety, among other things. It was a vote not based on concern for the lack of reform in the EU: it was about misplaced and misunderstood British identity, that was placed as superior to other states, and perfectly capable of raising the flag of the Empire after centuries of outward progress.

It’s been a year. It’s been a year of we, in Belfast, Derry, Newry, Enniskillen, having to remind everyone that our region has always been fragile and precarious, that our peace process was ongoing and needed attention. It’s been a year of sharing and re-issuing reports compiled by EU officials on the dire effects of a EU withdrawal on devolved administrations. It’s been a year of my colleagues publishing paper after opinion on the impact of Brexit on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Mostly, it’s been a year of reading about the fear, anxiety, and panic at the prospect of the border being raised. Typing this, I found myself capitalizing the word – Border – out of habit. It’s not just any border; it’s a border that symbolized a civil war. It’s a fault line I had known my entire life and that I still shudder, even if it is now disembodied, whenever I ride what is now a commuter train between Dublin and Belfast. It’s a border we were told we were never going to see again, one that Theresa May apparently just found out about, one that Secretary of State James Brokenshire discusses to provide assurances of our safety but without the necessary presence or authority required by the position of neutrality the UK is supposed to hold. There is nothing neutral about Brexit and its complete lack of interest in Northern Ireland. And so, we are entering our sixth month without a government or a Speaker of the Assembly; Dublin finds itself having to be a buffer between London and Brussels while being the key player on the chessboard, without its consent, without it having a say in the referendum being carried out in the first place. Northern Ireland voted to stay, because, as I wrote at the time, it is survival for most of us. It is for many others across the Union.

It’s been a year and I’m swimming against the tide of colleagues and friends leaving the UK to head to the continent, where their legal status is ensured, where they will not be asked for a visa and where their children can stay with their parents: I am moving to London. As I flew back to Europe a few days ago, once again from New York, but this time into Switzerland, I realized my biggest privilege wasn’t the most obvious necessarily. It wasn’t my education that the EU subsidized. It wasn’t my safety from war that the EU launched and protected. It wasn’t my health coverage that the EU ensured and funded. It is my freedom of movement. It’s the two passports – I am a citizen of nowhere – I hold, two EU citizenships, two possibilities of fast-tracking at airports, two possibilities of visa waivers. One is a Schengen nationality, the other is a Common Travel Area one. European citizens are trading this freedom at quite a cost: first the Schengen Information System (SIS II) database, and the Passenger Name Record (PNR) agreement with the US. Those will need work, reform, scrutiny, checks. We have a Parliament, we have Courts. UK citizens may lose their freedom of movement. They may be restricted, suspended, will have to re-negotiate. Education, family life, work, internships, travel, tourism, experience, all of this is dangling off the edge of a cliff.

It’s been one year. Imagine. One year, and no answer.