The Strange World of the Special Tribunal For Lebanon

A very expensive court prosecutes spectral defendants…

“Because missiles can fly through windows, the courtroom is windowless.” So reports Ronen Bergman in “The Hezbollah Connection,” an epic 8,000-word dispatch from The New York Times Magazine last year. The courtroom in question belongs to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), a United Nations-backed entity in The Hague, Netherlands. The STL is tasked with trying in absentia five Hezbollah members accused of orchestrating the 2005 bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri along with 21 others in a massive blast in Beirut. More than a decade later, as the tribunal fumbles its way toward ostensible justice from the depths of its windowless chambers, one can’t help but begin to question how any disgruntled party in Lebanon would go about firing missiles at a Netherlands courtroom 2,000 miles away.

Earlier this year in Beirut, I spoke with members of several STL defense teams who were in town interviewing “witnesses” for the tribunal. These particular witnesses were officials from Lebanese mobile phone companies, as the prosecutors’ case is in large part based on the analysis of enormous quantities of mobile phone logs, which are said to point to the five Hezbollah men. Much of the STL’s work thus consists of the endless examination of telecom information using unproven methods of co-location and link analysis. Indeed, as lawyer Philippe Larochelle—who has since resigned from his position as co-counsel for defendant Hussein Hassan Oneissi—put it to me: it’s essentially the case that “the accused are phones.”

The trial of the phones kicked off in The Hague in January 2014, following all manner of delays and detours. In one rather lengthy detour, from 2005-2009, four Lebanese generals were imprisoned without charge thanks to a recommendation by initial UN prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who was operating on a defective theory that the generals had conspired with the Syrian government to assassinate Hariri. Once a sufficient international stink had been made over the wrongful imprisonment and the generals had finally been freed, the STL fixed its attention solely on Hezbollah.

As the New York Times sees it, the STL is “necessary simply because of Hezbollah’s unique role in Lebanon and the world: Although the group is classified by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization, it is also a popular political party in Lebanon, and therefore it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for Lebanon or any other single nation to provide an appropriate venue for its prosecution.”

But “necessary” is an odd way of describing the STL to begin with. The tribunal’s singular nature makes it an unusual international priority. For one thing, it’s expensive; some half a billion dollars had already been spent as of February 2015—with Lebanon in charge of 49 percent of the bill. This is hardly small change in a country plagued by widespread poverty and a dearth of government services. During my most recent visit to Tyre, Lebanon’s fourth-largest city (located twenty minutes from the border with Israel), the area was receiving as little as two hours of government-supplied electricity per day. A November 2014 article in Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper noted that the country had just managed to fork over $36 million “in dues” to the STL despite “financial troubles, as the [Lebanese] economy reels from the impact of a massive refugee influx from Syria and ongoing security problems.” The previous December, meanwhile, the U.S. State Department issued a press statement applauding “Lebanon’s decision to fulfill its 2013 funding obligations” to the STL and emphasizing that the United States, too, had “provided strong financial support to the Tribunal since its inception, and we will continue to do so.”

Photos courtesy of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
Photos courtesy of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Yet the absence of any actual defendants gives the STL an air of the farcical. Indeed, it is the first international trial in absentia  since Nuremberg. In Beirut, defense lawyer Larochelle remarked to me that having worked more than two years for the STL without ever seeing the person whose “interests” he was supposed to be representing had taken its toll on his motivation. A lawyer can find it dispiriting to defend an invisible client. Any eventual conviction by the “mock court,” Larochelle said, would be “imperfect” in light of the reality that “the accused are not there”—and that the most the prosecutors could hope for was “a conviction for five ghosts.” Given the specifics, imperfect would seem something of a wry understatement.

One might think that the May 2016 assassination in Syria of one of the defendants, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, would also have put the operation in a pickle. (It wasn’t, however, unexpected: when I spoke to a member of the defense team in Beirut several months prior to the assassination, he claimed there was a good chance Badreddine would be killed—either before or after the verdict—by the Mossad, CIA, or some other interested party.) But so far, the tribunal appears undeterred. Following Badreddine’s death, the STL swiftly took to Twitter to assure the world that it remained “committed to fulfill its mandate with the highest standards of international justice.” Granted, a dead Badreddine is no less present at the proceedings than he was before.

The United States, for one, has long been insistent on seeing things through at the STL, regardless of the court’s eccentricities. In the aforementioned press statement, the State Department condemns “those responsible for reprehensible and destabilizing acts of violence in Lebanon,” lamenting that, “for too long, Lebanon has suffered from a culture of impunity for those who use murder and terror to promote their political agenda against the interests of the Lebanese people.” A lofty promise is put forth: “The Tribunal, working with the Government of Lebanon, will help end this impunity by providing a transparent, fair process to determine responsibility for the terrorist attack that killed former Prime Minister Hariri and scores of others.”

But the only obvious transparency on display at the STL is the transparent selectivity of its justice. No other political assassination—a tradition that has defined the Lebanese landscape for decades, both before and after Hariri’s demise—has merited such attention. And as a Beirut-based criminal justice analyst pointed out to me, the post-cold war crop of international tribunals—for the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and so on—have all dealt with genocide and crimes against humanity rather than crimes against individuals.

The tribunal’s mandate also depends on the highly contested nature of the word “terrorism.” The STL defines itself as “the first tribunal of its kind to deal with terrorism as a distinct crime.” In these groundbreaking dealings, the STL notes, it “applies the Lebanese legal definition of terrorism, of which an element is the use of means that are ‘liable to create a public danger.’” As usual, the word “terrorism” is so broad as to be almost entirely empty of meaning, making its application open to extreme subjectivity.

One of the most blatant hypocrisies in the international community’s stance against “terrorism” is in its lack of application to more-than-eligible actions by the United States and Israel. Hezbollah’s very raison d’être, it bears mentioning, lies in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, an affair that killed an estimated 20,000 people, the vast majority of them civilians. After occupying south Lebanon for no fewer than 22 years and subjecting the country to intermittent bouts of slaughter, the Israeli military returned in 2006 to decimate its northern neighbor and wipe out approximately 1,200 lives, again mainly civilian. In regularly flattening sections of Lebanon, Israel would appear to have the “creation of public danger” down to an art. But Israel’s maneuvers have not yet proven special enough for a Special Tribunal.

In fact, Hezbollah has accused Israel itself of carrying out the Hariri assassination, though the STL has categorically refused to consider the possibility. Arguably, the Israeli state did possess not only the technical sophistication to orchestrate the murder but also sufficient motivations. After all, the direct outcome of the assassination—which has from the get-go been blamed on varying combinations of Syria and Hezbollah—was the Syrians’ departure from Lebanon, where they had maintained an occupying presence since being summoned by Christian forces shortly after the launch of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. The termination of the Syrian occupation translated into big points for Israel, which had been forcibly evicted from its own occupation in 2000 by the Hezbollah-led resistance movement—an affront the Israeli government still hasn’t managed to get over.

“Excessive fixation with the killing of the multibillionaire Hariri has tended to distract from the fairly pervasive injustice suffered by much of the rest of the Lebanese population…”

The United States’ own insistence on pursuing the prosecution solidifies the double standard. After all, it was none other than the U.S. that was rush-shipping bombs to the Israeli military in 2006 while it engaged in slaughtering Lebanese children. The one-way moral reasoning once again raises the question of just who deserves the denomination of foreign terrorist organization. The United States has never faced international legal action for its various violent incursions abroad, and has freely supported the assassination of heads of state from Patrice Lumumba in the Congo to Salvador Allende in Chile. In 2011, a U.S. drone was directly involved in the killing of Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, plunging the country further into a ruinous civil war. Yet strangely, Hezbollah faces the only international terrorism tribunal ever constituted. In The Hague, phone lines are being put on trial for the killing of a Lebanese superbillionaire, while U.S. politicians have not once been summonsed to answer for the destruction of Iraq.

The proceedings are hopelessly hypocritical in other ways. The “Government of Lebanon” that has been assigned the job of helping to end “impunity” is itself largely comprised of sectarian warlords hailing from the civil war era. Those warlords have remained entrenched in power despite being responsible for untold quantities of spilled blood. There’s a lot to be said for impunity.

There’s also something to be said for social class, it seems. The excessive fixation with the killing of Hariri has tended to distract from the fairly pervasive injustice suffered by much of the rest of the Lebanese population. Unsurprisingly, a not insignificant amount of suffering is attributable to aforementioned warlords. As Lebanese criminal justice expert Dr. Omar Nashabe remarks in a 2012 paper published by the American University of Beirut, “families of thousands of persons who disappeared during the [Lebanese] civil war question the creation of the STL to investigate the killings of a few elites with no serious investigations into the fate of their [own] relatives.”

stl3

There are other thorny geopolitical implications to the tribunal’s work, too. It’s worth reviewing the words of Lebanese Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, who in a leaked American diplomatic cable from 2006 is quoted as characterizing the tribunal as “our best weapon against the Syrians.”

Jumblatt is a civil war relic whose public positions have been, at best, a jumble of schizophrenic self-contradiction. Despite opposing the invasion of Iraq at the time it occurred, Jumblatt is quoted in a book by George W. Bush as retrospectively praising the invasion as equivalent to the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Note that, since the invasion quickly turned to disaster, most observers would have revised their opinions in the opposite direction.) Jumblatt additionally appeared in a 2007 issue of The New Yorker, advising then-U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney on how to undermine Syria’s Bashar al-Assad so as to disrupt “the basic link between Iran and Lebanon.”

Fast forward to 2015, when Jumblatt himself testified in The Hague, as one of a lineup of Lebanese politicians trotted before the STL to aid the battle against “impunity.” No matter that, like many of his colleagues, Jumblatt is guilty of ethnic cleansing and other misconduct dating from the civil war period. According to the Daily Star, the Druze leader had at the outset “personally lobbied world leaders to finance the [Hariri] tribunal” but had since had a change of heart:

At a meeting with the outgoing Russian ambassador to Lebanon in 2010, Jumblatt said he wished the tribunal had never been established. ‘We got the tribunal, but I wish we did not,’ Jumblatt said… ‘The aim of [U.N. Security Council] Resolution 1559 and the 2006 War [with Israel] was to disarm the Resistance [Hezbollah]. When this failed, they resorted to [attempting to use] the STL’s indictment [to carry out this goal] (rampant brackets in original).

Jumblatt’s own psychological oscillations aside, the STL has since become an even better “best weapon against the Syrians” and affiliated entities on account of the war raging in Syria and efforts to discredit select tribunal participants.

The more dysfunctional the international community is, the more dysfunctional the justice.

Now that one of the “ghost” defendants,  Badreddine, has definitively crossed over, it’s anyone’s guess what the future holds for the defense attorneys who represent the deceased man’s remaining earthly “interests.” But however things ultimately shape up in The Hague, it seems there is plenty of job security to be had in the tribunal industry; as the Times notes, many of the judges and lawyers involved in the STL “have made a career of serving in such international tribunals.” The U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, for example, has now been operating continuously for over twenty years, and defendants quite literally grow old as they wait for their trials to conclude.

Philippe Larochelle, himself a veteran of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Court, cast as the STL’s most distinguishing characteristic the sheer amount of money and resources being thrown at the project. Larochelle suggests, with characteristic understatement, that the STL’s lucrative employment opportunities raised the question of “to what extent” participants were being “paid to validate a dubious process.”

He describes the court as the “Dubai or Qatar of tribunals.” On its sleek website, the STL offers free downloads of high-quality professional photographs of its gleaming facilities, encouraging the media to disseminate them. There is, however, one area in which the STL has attempted to pinch pennies: the court’s website specifies that “interns will not receive remuneration for their work [and] will cover the travel and living costs in the Netherlands.”

As the funds keep flowing in, the folly and general arbitrariness of the result is readily apparent. Even The New York Times acknowledged that “the prosecution has produced no direct evidence,” an indication that the court “is also likely to establish new precedents in murder convictions on the basis of circumstantial evidence.”

STL aficionados might have hoped for at least a few incidents of compelling testimony to redeem the court’s mission and give it an aura of useful purpose. But these, too, have been few and far between. Instead, the most crucial witnesses have lapsed into contradiction and recantation. In December, for example, a former bodyguard for “Sami Issa”—said to be the alter-ego of now-nonexistent defendant Mustafa Badreddine—positively identified Issa/Badreddine in two photographs and then backpedaled. The Daily Star summed up the ensuing scene:

Bizarrely, he testified that the man in the photograph was wearing eyeglasses, comparing them to Issa’s. Though the photo was of poor quality, the person depicted did not appear to be wearing any.

But the money is certainly being spent. The Times noted some of the results:

The tribunal’s budget makes it possible for lawyers to present their graphic exhibits in the clearest possible manner. During some hearings, prosecutors place impressively accurate before-and-after models of the scene of the bombing on an enormous table at the center of the room. The model makers, who spent weeks constructing them, put special emphasis on precisely reproducing the destruction, even the damage to trees.

As is well known in criminal justice circles, leaf disfiguration patterns hold the key to any murder mystery.

All of this may be slightly unfair to the STL, though. After all, there may be little hope for any venue dedicated to the pursuit of “international justice.” As Larochelle pointed out to me, it’s an ideal that is categorically impossible, given that it can’t be disentangled from the (inevitably politicized) international community itself. As he noted, “The more dysfunctional the international community is, the more dysfunctional the justice.”

Two days prior to the announcement of Badreddine’s demise, I subjected myself to a brief but excruciating viewing of STL courtroom proceedings, which are transmitted with a thirty-minute delay on the STL website. During the segment I watched, a female prosecutor examined a protected witness—a representative of a telecommunications company in Lebanon. The witness’s protected status meant that the screen went blank each time he spoke, and his voice was mutated into a cross between Darth Vader, Optimus Prime, and the guy who narrates movie previews. The prosecutor spent most of her own screen time reading to the court the scintillating text of Lebanese mobile network subscription agreement forms.

Watching justice plod along into eternity at the STL, I couldn’t help but wonder how many in the courtroom secretly longed for a window. Or perhaps even a missile.

Good Riddance to a Revolting Monster

One of the most horrible people on earth committed serial sexual assault. Can we at last be rid of him forever?

It is always unwise to be complacent, especially when it comes to Donald Trump. A hundred scandals that would destroy an ordinary man have failed to undo him. But with Trump having now proudly admitted to groping multiple women (you “grab them by the pussy”), and his behavior graphically confirmed by a victim, perhaps it will at last be possible to declare truthfully (instead of wishfully) that Trump’s campaign is over. Our long national nightmare may finally be at an end.

Again, caution is warranted. Like shell-shocked townspeople emerging from a bomb shelter, we should make sure the threat is truly vanquished before celebrating. But something feels qualitatively different about this most recent Trump scandal. Trump’s racism, militarism, and misogyny were on open display before. But electing racists is certainly not without precedent in United States presidential history, and threatening to bomb helpless non-white people if elected is almost a job requirement. Handing the presidency to a man who openly brags of committing serial sexual assault, however, would be a dramatic new kind of low.

What makes this scandal seem different is the tone of the revulsion among Republicans. Paul Ryan was “sickened” by Trump’s remarks and Mitch McConnell found the revelation “repugnant.” Hardly anyone appears to be defending the so-called “lewd” remarks. Even Trump seems to have little to say in his own defense, other than to claim that he has heard Bill Clinton say far worse on the golf course. (Of this, I have no doubt. But anyone using the Bill Clinton Scale of sexual morality is in deep trouble indeed.)

Of course, the fact that Republicans chose this particular moment to disembark from the Trump train shows just how great the party’s tolerance for human evil is. One almost suspects that the outrage had more to do with Trump’s on-tape use of the words “pussy” and “fuck” than with the actual substance of the admission. It has always been Trump’s lewdness and vulgarity, rather than, say, his willingness to deport and massacre large numbers of people, that has most unsettled the conservative conscience. (And the misclassification of the groping comments as “lewd” rather than “predatory” downplays the seriousness of their contents.) Anyone who cared about Trump’s actual harm to humans would never have gotten on board with him in the first place. This is a man who tried to get five innocent black men executed, on the grounds that “hate is what we need.” He is a man who has been making white supremacism acceptable again. (That must be the subtext of those red hats, since I can’t remember a time when America was “great,” but I can certainly remember a time when it lynched people.) From the moment he entered the presidential race, he has embraced the most repellent, violent, and destructive tendencies in American politics. Anyone who stood by him until the groping confession must have been fine with the white supremacy.

As Republicans flee Trump, then, it should be remembered that Trump was only an especially unpleasant manifestation of beliefs they all hold. There is a risk that Trump’s spectacular implosion will make ordinary, “sensible” conservatism look comparatively innocuous and redeemable. But it isn’t. George W. Bush’s Iraq bloodbath cost hundreds of thousands of civilian lives. He should not be receiving little embraces from Michelle Obama, and yet he is. Ted Cruz may have even more malignant and warlike beliefs than Trump, yet Cruz retains his respectability and will almost certainly try for the presidency again. Trump is but a symptom of the disease that is right-wing politics.

It is worth reflecting on Trump’s admission that he could get away with aggressive crotch-grabbing because of his fame. Just as nobody should buy the idea that Trump has uniquely horrendous politics, nobody should treat his sexual assaults as some kind of aberration. Trump was right that this privilege seems to come along with being famous. The exposure of Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes, who spent decades getting away with sexually abusing women while maintaining positions of wealth and power, shows just how extraordinary the impunity is.

Not nearly enough attention is paid to the way that fame and wealth allow men to commit acts of serial abuse without consequence. Billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein (friend to both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump alike) likely committed sex crimes against scores of underage girls, yet was able to use wealth and influence to negotiate a non-prosecution agreement in exchange for a nominal 13-month jail sentence (in which he would report to jail only at night). In Britain, beloved television star Jimmy Savile (who socialized with monarchs, prime ministers, and popes, and received a knighthood among countless other awards) was exposed after his death as having raped or molested at least 500 young girls. Plenty of people around Savile knew about this behavior; Savile boasted in his autobiography of talking police and parents out of pursuing charges against him. Yet fame allowed him to do whatever he pleased. 

Thanks to the multi-decade efforts of feminists, this kind of culture of abuse is hopefully abating, even though rape and assault remain horrifyingly common experiences for women and are rarely punished. Savile, Cosby, and Ailes finally had their reputations ruined, though not until far too late. In terms of tolerance for male sexual misconduct, there is a noticeable difference between the present day and the 90’s. It is implausible that a sexual harasser like Clarence Thomas would make it onto the Supreme Court today, and unlikely that Monica Lewinsky would have been left to fend for herself against a grotesquely sexist press. (The need to put Hillary Clinton in the White House has caused an uncomfortable silence around the rape allegation against Bill Clinton, but perhaps that, too, will have its time.) Perhaps, God willing, the “old boys club” may finally be disintegrating. If a Hillary Clinton presidency can drive another nail into its coffin, her term will have been worth something.

At Current Affairs, we have generally tried to refrain from writing too much about Donald Trump. This is, frankly, because we do not enjoy the feeling of thinking about him. Every moment of my life that is occupied by contemplating Trump is a moment that I do not wish I was living. We also believed that since Trump thrived on attention, it was best to pay him as little attention as possible. Writing articles condemning him as a bigot and a rube seemed only to make him stronger. Whenever we did write an article ostensibly about Trump, it was usually actually about something else (like civilian deaths in Syria).

I have spent months desperately wishing that Trump would somehow destroy himself. A self-inflicted wound seemed the only hope; the Clinton campaign is highly ineffective, and is stuck with one of the world’s most flawed candidates. I believed very strongly (and still do) that the Trump threat was nothing to laugh at; Trump could easily have become president if he had managed to show even minor strategic restraint. Fortunately, Trump is a child, and was incapable of capitalizing upon the opportunity that had been handed to him.

Presuming Trump’s already-drooping chances are indeed ruined by the sexual assault scandal, everyone can breathe freely for a moment. Leftists can also stop giving in to the Democratic insistence that all criticism of Hillary Clinton provides aid and comfort to the enemy. That’s a relief, because there are a lot of aspects of the Democratic Party that need to be vigorously rejected and excised. Parts of Clinton’s infamous remarks to Goldman Sachs have just been released (how fortunate she is that the grope-tape emerged at the precise same moment), and they confirm that Clintonian politics is just as elitist and oligarchical as we believed, and that Clinton herself is just as slippery as her critics knew her to be. (She has a “public and private position” on issues, i.e. lies to the public while telling bankers what she really believes, and shares the insane Wall Street delusion that successful people are unfairly persecuted and demonized in America.) And since Trump is a groper who will not be president, there is no reason not to point these facts out.

Trump will be back. Not the man himself, perhaps, but the dark and menacing tendencies he represents. Democrats failed to appreciate how serious the situation was, believing they could laugh him off as “Drumpf” and mock his supporters as hicks. Next time, they need to have a plan, and a candidate who isn’t widely hated and mistrusted. In 1928, the Brownshirts looked silly parading down German streets. By 1933, the joke wasn’t very funny anymore. A serious left alternative, one with a platform beyond “We’re not them,” needs to be readied. The next monster may be even deadlier.

The Great American Chemtrail

Understanding one of the country’s most bizarre paranoias…

Earlier this year, after Prince was found dead on the floor of an elevator in his Paisley Park recording studio, some strange headlines appeared through Google News. These included “Did The Chemtrail Flu Kill Prince?” and “Special Report: Was Prince Murdered By Illuminati Record Execs?” These articles suggested that Prince had not been killed by excessive indulgence in opiates, as was the default hypothesis at the time and as the autopsy would eventually confirm. Instead, Prince’s death was allegedly related to “chemtrails,” – airborne chemical agents released by planes as part of a global conspiracy.

In fact, the singer himself had been a believer in the sinister influence of “chemtrails.” On the Tavis Smiley Show, Prince explained:

“You know, when I was a kid I used to see these trails in the sky all the time and ‘Oh that’s cool—a jet just went over.’ And then you started to see whole bunch of them and next thing you know everybody in your neighborhood was fighting and arguing and you didn’t know why.”

When Prince died suddenly at the age of 57, some believed the late star was assassinated for speaking out. Others theorized, as swivel-eyed Infowars editor Alex Jones suggested to his two million radio listeners, that he was killed by a “weaponized flu” caused by the trails.

To believers, the “chemtrail” is like any ordinary plane condensation trail (or “contrail”) in the sky, but one with suspiciously long-lasting features. Chemtrails, they say, persist for as many as 12 hours, and contain a mixture of ominous particulates such as aluminium, pathogens, and even desiccated blood. To denizens of online chemtrail forums, the trails have all manner of sinister purposes. Believers speculate that the trails may be part of a secret geo-engineering project involving solar radiation management or weather modification. Some on chemtrail forums also insist they have seen changes in the moon’s orbit, or claim to possess information that WiFi frequencies could be changing our DNA. They suspect some kind of government attempt at either social manipulation, human population control, or biological/chemical warfare (perhaps even all three). One frequenter of the GeoEngineeringWatch site writes:

They are altering the weather and sunlight to cause a seemingly “natural” global famine to depopulate human beings to numbers of their choosing. They are committing perpetrated democide, depopulating exactly as they said they would do, and they are using “global warming” as their cover story for mass murder.

Some believe, as Prince evidently did, that the trails are causing illnesses and social problems, part of a plot to spread disease in order to create future markets for powerful pharmaceutical corporations. A few claim to have acquired the symptoms of “Morgellons disease,” a delusional non-ailment in which a person believes herself to be infested with insects, parasites or fibers. Chemtrail forum-dwellers call the whole phenomenon a part of “the largest crime against humanity in human history.”

chemtrails

It is fair to say that scientists have universally dismissed (and repeatedly, exasperatedly debunked) every single one of the chemtrail theorists’ claims. However, this only provides further proof to believers of how deep the conspiracy goes! Believers post photographs depicting the interiors of planes, in which the cabin is stocked with large containers connected by tubes. The photos are accompanied by the exclamation that “This is the spraying equipment!” In fact, the pictures merely show planes filled with ballast barrels, water tanks that are used to simulate passenger loads during the flight testing of new airliner designs. (The tubes allow water to be pumped from tank to tank, simulating passenger motion in the cabin.)

The theory’s proponents insist chemtrails are a new phenomenon, but when confronted with photographs of long-lasting condensation trails from as far back as World War II, they refer to the military’s long history of weather modification plots. As for so many faiths and cults, every piece of contradictory evidence is seen to further bolster the theory. Moon-landing conspiracies work similarly—every additional photograph of human beings literally standing on the moon is just more evidence that the whole thing was faked.

The allegations of chemtrail theorists are pretty easily dealt with. But the belief has proven impressively persistent. A search for chemtrails brings up 5.5 million Google results and a 2011 study found that 16.6% of a sample of 3105 people in the US, Canada and the UK believed either “entirely” or, more often, “to some extent” in the existence of a conspiracy involving chemtrails. Prince was not the only celebrity to issue expostulations against chemtrail doubters. Aging TV martial artist and right-wing paranoiac Chuck Norris also plugged the theory, insisting that chemtrails regularly appear in the skies over his Texas ranch. Joni Mitchell has publicly claimed to be a sufferer of “Morgellon’s disease.” Mitchell was among those condemning the CDC for treating the syndrome as imaginary, insisting she had contracted a “weird, incurable disease that seems like it’s from outer space” in which “fibers in a variety of colors protrude out of my skin like mushrooms after a rainstorm: they cannot be forensically identified as animal, vegetable or mineral.”

The origins of the chemtrail conspiracy narrative can be traced back to the late 1990s when a piece by “investigative journalist” William Thomas suggested that “Contrails spread by fleets of jet aircraft in elaborate cross-hatched patterns are sparking speculation and making people sick across the United States.” From there, the idea spread to late-night talk radio, where “UFOlogists” and paranormal investigators have long found a sympathetic ear. But the chemtrails conspiracy also coincided directly with the early rise of the Internet forum as a venue for the sharing of ideas, and it was on exhaustively-compiled, garishly-designed websites that the theory was most successfully promoted.

The success of the chemtrails theory in the online world shows the particular conduciveness of the platform to conspiratorial thinking, though the Internet has also always been the perfect platform for making fun of such thinking. Richard Hofstadter’s famous description of the “uncommonly angry minds” that made up the “paranoid style” in American political thought could be a description of just about any contemporary online forum on even the most mundane and uncontroversial of topics. Add to that mix an all encompassing theory of government geo-engineering, population control and a global apocalyptic conspiracy raining down from the sky, throw in Big Oil, Big Pharma and the Jews and Hofstadter’s description becomes something of an understatement.

Chemtrail activists frequently attend events and conferences on geo-engineering, and many academics working in the area have been subjected to threats and verbal abuse for their alleged role in the conspiracy. Pilots and weather reporters receive harassment and threats from anti-chemtrails activists. While conspiratorial paranoia may generally be America’s harmless national pastime, in the case of chemtrails, online forums are full of justifications and fantasies of violence toward those seen to be involved in the plot. On a generically populist site titled “thepeoplesvoice.org,” one writer says, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fantasized about firing a missile at the jets laying chemtrails over our skies.” Other commenters on chemtrail forums warn, “There’s only one answer. Kill them before they kill you” or “Why won’t they tell us there [sic] plan and leave us and the world we live in alone.” Another wonders, “Am I the only one that is considering picking up a gun and shooting these people dead before they get my mother, my father, my sister, my brother, and even my garden?” (First they came for the begonias, and I said nothing…)

Perhaps needless to say, Jews are often implicated. One believer posted a video on YouTube called “Star of David chemtrails/persistent contrails” in which he films criss-crossing trails in the sky, grimly observing off-camera that “They create the Star of David… speaks for itself.”

There is a genteel approach, sometimes found in academic writing, to consider the ill-written and baseless ramblings of conspiracy theory forums as kinds of “counter-knowledges” or as different “ways of knowing.” Indeed, such beliefs often do come from seemingly politically disenfranchised people with possible mental health issues.

But the only thing more patronizing than to deride such beliefs would be not to do so. One also has to wonder if such a sympathetic reading would be given if the racial conspiratorial undertones were against any group but the Jews. And in practice it’s hard to be patiently open-minded while reading typical communiqués like this on an anti-chemtrails YouTube video:

“MORGELLONS KiLLS!!!!!!! […] MORGELLONS FROM CHEMTRAiLS

THiS SECRET WAR ON YOU MUST BE STOPPED!!!!

if You don’t say no and stop this, we all will suffer and die

THANK YOU FOR STOPPiNG NewWorldOrder/NATO/Chemtrails/RFiD Powder/Smart Dust!!!!!!!”

The 1990’s saw an explosion of conspiracy theory culture in the United States, in the reverberations from decades of the paranoid Cold War years. Beginning in the 1990s, the era-defining TV show The X-Files featured Russian nuclear sewer monsters, U.S. government alien cover-ups, secret geo-engineering, population control projects and domestic terrorism (back when the term “terrorism” conjured up nightmare visions of rampaging Southern hillbillies instead of bearded jihadis). And it is worth remembering that many of the conspiratorial domestic terrorists of the 1990’s had in fact experienced terrible crimes at the hands of the state. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was subjected to cruel CIA experiments during his time as a Harvard undergraduate. The so-called “MK Ultra” research of the ‘50s and ‘60s, which used LSD and psychological abuse on unsuspecting subjects, is now a notorious chapter in the agency’s history and as horrifying as anything alleged on anti-chemtrails forums. Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, killing 168 and injuring around 600, was a veteran who had witnessed the horrific violence of the Gulf War. McVeigh had become fixated on the Clinton Administration’s needless massacre at Waco, in which 76 people were shot and burned alive after a siege by the FBI and ATF went horrendously awry.

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As in Hofstadter’s 1964 analysis, the online  world of the chemtrails conspiracy is not recognizably right or left wing. There are elements associated with the fringe of U.S. ultra-conservatism, such as fear of Big Government’s statist dastardliness. The overlap between the militia movement and the conspiracy crowd is significant. But there are also elements of the more Romantic-tinged Green left, such as an opposition to the industrial plunder of nature and a fear of being poisoned by sprayed chemicals. There are echoes of ideas also found in the Unabomber’s manifesto about the evils of industrial society. Conspiratorial notions also tend to find a sympathetic audience among the socialistically-inclined during times of real political weakness. The Left Forum in New York (a prominent annual gathering attended by what Amber Frost called “bitter old codgers,” “Maoist Third World-ists,” “sanctimonious Trotskyists,” and “adherents of similarly esoteric ideological traditions”) hosts conspiracy theorists on its panels. These include 9/11 “Truthers”, who remind the assembled radicals that jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.

The cultural critic Fredric Jameson argued that conspiracy theories are used as an improvised guide to our overwhelmingly complex social landscape. It is often easier to imagine sinister cabals and physically impossible phenomena than it is to accept the open and known injustices of the world. Who needs the Illuminati when almost the entire British government went to the same schools? One only has to read Yanis Varoufakis’ accounts of the internal workings of international financial bodies or look at the dynasties and tiny elites that run the world of government and capital to wonder if the paranoid person is just, as William Burroughs put it “a person in possession of all the facts.” The paranoid impulse is not so much wrong as too often misdirected and it is often not a particularly distant leap from the truth to the fiction. People are right in their intuition that there are dark forces arrayed against them but they’re more likely to find the information they seek in the dull finance section of any newspaper than on chemtrails forums that weave more compelling narratives.

In fact, chemtrail believers have a paradoxical mixture of rationalist skepticism and dogmatic faith. They spend their time carefully parsing documents with a scrupulousness worthy of the IRS. Like committed scientists, they quest after “truth,” they want to know what’s “really” going on. They see unexplained horrors in the world around them, and they are persistent askers of “Why?”

Yet they are fundamentally religious in their outlook, insofar as they believe on faith in something that others cannot see. The online conspiracy world speaks of “sheeple” and issues commands to “wake up.” This is one expression of an entire online discourse of waking up, also shared by the “men’s rights” online community “RedPill” (a reference to the film The Matrix, in which by taking the “red pill,” one become aware of the truth about one’s fabricated reality.) There is a quasi-spiritual dimension to the born-again experiences people describe when they “woke up” to reality. Although unlike Christians, who awake to something they find beautiful and fulfilling, the online rebirth tends to involve plunging into darkness to see the truth.

Chemtrail conspiracies are, to some extent, just another incarnation of the human search for meaning, albeit one that is irrational and occasionally threatening. Today most of us live at the mercy of unknowably complex and volatile economic forces whose inner financial workings are entirely opaque to all but a few. The all-encompassing chemtrails conspiracy may appeal because it orders a chaotic world. As a replacement for religious traditions and political projects which both contained beautiful and redemptive ideas, individualism as the only surviving ideology has turned out to be thin gruel for some. In the absence of anything else to have faith in and so much to try to understand, why not chemtrails?

The Banality of Instagram

Dictator chic in the age of social media…

One of the most consistent traits of individuals who perform acts of monstrous evil is their capacity for being simultaneously unremarkable and ridiculous. Kim Jong-Il was responsible for perpetuating the system of immiserating Stalinist repression and satanic gulags that infest the North Korean state. He also publicly claimed a world-record golf handicap and maintained a status as the world’s single-largest purchaser of Hennessy cognac. Joseph Goebbels was a darkly amoral propagandist who headed the public-relations apparatus for the Nazi genocide machine. He was also a fidgety, easily agitated man, and when he saw a British parody film in which producers had set Nazi marches to whimsical dance music, Goebbels immediately ran out of the screening room while shrieking obscenities and throwing chairs like an enraged toddler.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the standing dictator of Chechnya, is a second-generation death squad commander and Putin lackey. He’s known for his pitiless cruelty and brutality toward any and all perceived political enemies. He also enjoys taking taking selfies and recording videos of himself working out despite being a rather goofy-looking sort with the physique of a potato.

Bashar al-Assad looks like a nervous substitute teacher. Joseph Stalin looked like someone’s jovial uncle. And Ramzan Kadyrov looks like a smiling doofus who films himself on the treadmill and named his pet dog “Tarzan.” (“Tarzan” is apparently female.)

Hannah Arendt is widely cited for her analysis of Nazi logistician Adolf Eichmann’s unremarkable personality—an observation that lead to her famous remark about the “banality of evil.” Eichmann was not a snarling cartoon, or a flamboyantly malevolent persona who cackled while plotting the Final Solution. He was a mousy bureaucrat who engineered genocide with all the theatricality of a tax attorney.

Ramzan Kadyrov has been accused of ordering the killing of celebrated anti-Putin dissident Boris Nemtsov, a middle-aged father of four. There are allegedly videos of a man bearing a damning resemblance to Kadyrov beheading soldiers during the Second Chechen War. He is, by all accounts, a compulsively homicidal figure whose name has been attached to murder throughout every step of his life. Yet he also maintains one of the most personal and aggressively jovial social media presences of any head of state today. Online, Ramzan Kadyrov looks oddly similar to your least intelligent friend from college who grew up and somehow fell into a successful marketing career.

Kadyrov’s Instagram account has a following totaling more than 1.8 million users – a figure that rivals some of America’s most visible celebrities. As a point of comparison, Chechnya’s standing population was little more than 1.25 million as of 2010. Kadyrov’s social media presence extends well beyond those in his nation of birth and into the Russian-speaking world as a whole. It’s an astounding feat of subtle whitewashing. It makes Kadyrov seem friendly and acceptable, not through the usual means of outright lies and manipulation, but simply by making him look so staggeringly unremarkable that it’s hard to imagine this grinning cheeseball perpetrating atrocities.

When you comb over Kadyrov’s Instagram account, you notice a series of running themes—his puppy-like adoration of Putin, his obsession with fighting sports, assertions of nationalistic pride, and rather inane displays of piety and good cheer. One of Kadyrov’s most liked Instagram posts is merely a photo of him holding a baby lion, captioned with a heart emoji. None of these are in any way reminiscent of, for example, cutting off someone else’s head.

It’s not uncommon for Kadyrov’s posts to open with “As-salamu alaykum!”, a friendly salutation used between Muslims that translates roughly to “Peace be upon you.” In fact, the usage of this phrase is so common it starts to look like a sort of social media tic. It also goes without saying that Kadyrov doesn’t actually spend much time attempting to visit peace upon others.

To give some background to Kadyrov and his ascent as Chechnya’s current dictator and #1 Vladimir Putin fan, his family crawled to power out of the ashes of the Second Chechen War. When an empire begins to crumble, its satellite states will agitate for secession at the first sign of opportunity—turning perceived weakness or distraction into a point of severance. Chechnya fought viciously for autonomy during the post-Soviet era, eventually achieving de facto independence for a nearly three-year period from 1996-1999 along with the full removal of Russian military presence. This came to a brutal halt during the Second Chechen War when Russia, under the guidance of Vladimir Putin as newly elected Prime Minister, attempted to reassert territorial control.

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The Second Chechen War was less of a prolonged conflict and more of a harrowingly brutal shock operation aimed at crushing local resistance. While the primary combat phase only lasted from summer 1999 to spring 2000, civilian fatalities at the hands of pro-Russian forces are alleged to have reached into the tens of thousands. Once Russia’s scorched-earth policy achieved its intended effect, Putin promoted a particularly loyal death squad commander named Akhmad Kadyrov to the upper echelons of government. Akhmad soon become the president of Chechnya in 2003, but was assassinated by Chechen Islamists only months thereafter as an act of revenge. (Chechnya tends to produce uniquely capable jihadis, by contrast with the klutzes and blunderers that often emerge from France or England.)

Enter young Ramzan, stage right. Both slavishly loyal to Putin and enthusiastically violent, the younger Kadyrov proved an ideal successor. Moscow propelled him up the ranks in a manner similar to his father, with Ramzan being appointed supreme leader of Chechnya at the tender age of 30.

Predictably, Ramzan acted much like a death squad commander would when handed absolute power. He’s known for assassinating not just political opponents, but even members of the Chechen state apparatus who criticize him at all. His loyal paramilitary squads, referred to as Kadyrovtsy (it’s good to have a brand name), are known for wantonly terrorizing anyone who might offer the slightest dissent. Their uniting purpose seems to be cementing the power of the Kadyrov clan through the most horrific means possible. Kadyrovtsy were once accused of displaying the severed head of an anti-government partisan in the village of Kurchaloi as warning to the locals who might be tempted to make any gestures against Kadyrov’s rule. Some of the bravest people in the entire Russian Federation are prone to dying horrible deaths the moment they start to criticize Kadyrov, and Kadyrov has been accused of personally participating in tortures and executions.

One should adopt a balanced perspective though. It’s true that local beheading statistics seem to escalate precipitously whenever Kadyrov comes to town. On the other hand, a few months ago Kadyrov endearingly took to Instagram to ask followers to help him find his missing cat. As of this writing, no one has been able to locate Kadyrov’s cat, which probably makes him very sad. This is Ramzan and his cat, in better days:

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It should be noted that Kadyrov is rumored to have a private prison on his own compound where dissidents are known to disappear, never to return.

One of the most lasting impressions from Kadyrov’s Instagram is how easy it can be for revoltingly evil figures to hide their crimes behind an innocuous front. This is far from new. Autocrats throughout history have leaned heavily on the most up-to-date, relevant forms of propaganda to make themselves seem relatable and charming. Dictators on social media may seem faintly absurd, but it’s simply the logical contemporary update of an ancient tactic. What’s most unsettling about Kadyrov’s Instagram account is how successful it is at channeling this age-old methodology through contemporary social media. Because it’s so difficult to reconcile Kadyrov the smiling cat fancier with Kadyrov the wanton beheader, it becomes harder to imagine the brutality that goes undocumented. The unspoken rule behind this style of misdirection is that the cheerfulness of a despot’s propaganda often corresponds directly with the magnitude of their atrocities.

This can even be seen in the case of the Syrian Civil War. Bashar al-Assad has been responsible for significantly more civilian murders than ISIS has—despite ISIS making every attempt to advertise themselves as menacing, lethal, and dangerous. Assad presented himself as an even-handed statesman, all the while executing a military policy centered on massacring civilian populations loyal to the rebel opposition. During the harrowing earlier days of the Syrian Civil War, observers would occasionally remark on the dissonance of Assad’s well-composed, patrician social media presence. No matter the scale of murder occurring under Assad’s watch, his various Instagram postings still broadcasted little more than benign magnanimity.

Kadyrov simply takes this to its logical next step. His online presence shows a man who has murdered dissidents with his own hands playing with his dog and wishing the faithful a peaceful Ramadan. Brutal regents throughout history have had few better assets at their disposal than the power of distraction and public posturing. If you can mislead your subjects with one hand, it’s easier to commit murder with the other. It’s just that these days, the first hand is holding a smartphone.

Illustration by Lauren Lueder.