Месечни архиви: February 2017

Yale: The History We Can’t Erase


TwitterStudents protesting at Yale, April 2016

As the present changes, so does the look of the past. We know that’s true with regard to events of decades or centuries back, but if one needed proof that it’s also so for recent happenings, especially now that the American experiment has taken a turn so frightening as to feel epochal, one need only consider the recent controversy surrounding Yale University. In the fall of 2015, amid Black Lives Matter protests across the country, dozens of universities were gripped by a related movement whose makers sought to highlight how our institutions of learning—in everything from their approach to public space to the courses they offer—remain inhospitable to minority students and staff. On many campuses, student demands included a push to rename, or remove, historic buildings or monuments that were symbolically offensive. Yale in particular, with its John C. Calhoun College, named after a notorious antebellum statesman, slave owner, and racist, became a focal point of a heated national debate—among scholars, university officials, activists, and the press.

Now that we have a president whose evident hostility to many citizens and to the Constitution itself has already summoned more protestors to our streets than we’ve seen in generations, this historical debate has come to seem less urgent. Earlier this month, when the president of Yale, Peter Salovey, announced that the university has decided, after all, to remove Calhoun’s name from the residential college, the response was muted. But the Calhoun debate, viewed another way, goes to the heart of what our democracy is contending with. The person occupying our highest office hasn’t yet voiced his views on Yale’s move. One presumes they’d mirror those of Geraldo Rivera, the former talk-show host who on Twitter renounced an old tie to Calhoun College and decried the name-change because, he said, “intolerant insistence on political correctness is lame,” and wondered if Yale’s students would launch a petition to rename Washington, D.C., too. However, a closer look at Yale’s decision reveals the extent to which the university, in responding to student activism on campus, followed principles that would make the renaming the capital unthinkable.

Less than a year ago, in fact, Yale had decided against renaming the college. The university changed its position, Salovey said, because a review of Calhoun’s career and “principal legacy” suggested he was more than simply a man of his time. (Calhoun earned his BA from Yale in 1804 and law degree in 1822; the college that bore his name was built in 1932.) He was a slave-owner who beat an abolitionist colleague on the floor of the Senate; but he was also perhaps the Senate’s most zealous advocate of slavery—an avowed white supremacist who proclaimed, in a famous 1837 speech, that “the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between [whites and blacks], is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.” It was this passionate backing for slavery as “a positive good,” Salovey said, that made Calhoun a figure who “fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s values.”

The university hadn’t thought so, of course, when it named a building for Calhoun. In 1932, he didn’t have the nasty reputation he does now—he was a prominent alum, a former vice-president who would, in 1957, be inducted into the Senatorial Hall of Fame by a committee chaired by a young John F. Kennedy in the same year that Kennedy won a Pulitzer for Profiles in Courage. Since then, at least at Yale, Calhoun’s reputation has fared less well: on a campus which in 1932 accepted nary a student who wasn’t white and male and that offered no courses on slavery, there’s now a major research center devoted to its study—the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition—and many courses, in many departments, regularly dedicated to the topic. Calhoun’s name will soon be replaced, on his erstwhile college, by that of Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992), a Yale alumna distinguished as both a pioneering computer scientist and an admiral in the Navy—a woman “who achieved eminence in fields historically dominated by men,” as President Salovey put it, and whose work pioneering the first “word-based” computer languages was instrumental to creating much of the technology surrounding us today.   

As someone who lived in Calhoun College in the early 2000s—even as someone sympathetic to the demands that saw this change made—I couldn’t help feeling ambivalent about the news. And not simply because I have warm memories of the courtyard’s tire-swing, and of bonding with friends of all backgrounds over OutKast records—though there’s that. My more substantial worry accorded with the reasons voiced by Yale’s administration last spring, backed by learned and liberal observers like David Cole, when Salovey initially announced that Calhoun’s name would remain. I worry about the dangers of condescending to the past—about the ways that removing history’s visible traces, in a putative effort to fight its legacies, can more harm that cause than help it.

Last April, Salovey explained the administration’s decision to retain Calhoun’s name by expressing what he later described as the university’s commitment “to confronting, not erasing, our history.” Those words affirmed a principle—that we can’t judge the past by standards of the present—sacred to historians. But more than that, they seemed to capture my own experience as a Calhoun undergraduate whose course of study, in a program called “Ethnicity, Race, and Migration,” was centrally engaged with precisely the kind of problem that John Calhoun represented.   

When prominent African-Americans visited campus, Calhoun College seemed to play host more often than not. In the dorm’s dining hall, I saw Henry Louis Gates Jr. (a Calhoun alum himself) launch his Encyclopedia of Africana, and I attended readings by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Edwidge Danticat. I got to meet Bobby Seale and hear him talk of founding the Black Panther Party; my lefty friends and I joked that it was a good thing we were in the old racist’s college, or else we’d have missed out on seeing such speakers, presenting lives or work opposed to American racism, make inevitable mention of the inhumane past evoked by Calhoun’s name. When I received a prize from Yale’s Department of African-American Studies for a thesis I’d written on race and culture in the Caribbean, the department’s awards dinner was held—where else?—at Calhoun. One of my study’s subjects was the Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James: a scholar notable for insisting that it was impossible to understand the history of capitalism and of the New World, the very existence of the United State or the wealth of a place like Yale, without understanding the history of the Triangle Trade. Affirming that truth while dancing on an old bigot’s grave, in company of the eminent black scholars with whom I’d been privileged to study, felt like part of the point. 

The Yale program in which I wrote that thesis owed its own establishment to a previous generation of activism. “ER&M” was founded in 1997, amidst demands from students and faculty that the university—following the lead of schools in California and elsewhere, and in conjunction with continued efforts to diversify Yale’s student-body—establish new ways to study the historical experience of underrepresented groups. It was hard not to feel that the convictions animating the major—that one can’t understand America without its immigrants; that slavery’s after-effects remain central to American life; that questions of identity, whether we like it or not, sit at the core of our politics and our culture—might soon take their rightful place near the heart of Yale’s curriculum at large. It was to be hoped, too, that the makeup of a student body that has evolved to more closely mirror the diversity of the country might be reflected in a faculty that remained shockingly white and male.

But as the turmoil of recent years on campus has shown, neither of these things has happened. In the decade and a half since I graduated, the percentage of tenured Yale faculty who are African-American has held steady at 3 percent; the figure for Latinos is even lower. In the fall of 2015, a spate of tense episodes surrounding race and inclusivity, on campus and at nearby residences, showed the extent to which Yale remained an unwelcoming place for many students of color. In response to these tensions, Salovey announced a series of initiatives to support cultural centers and new research institutes, improve financial aid, and establish a fifty-million-dollar fund to improve faculty diversity.

On campus, these steps were welcomed, but many students and some faculty objected strongly to what seemed a blithe refusal to rename Calhoun. Protests against the university’s defense of the college’s name continued. And last August, Salovey asked John Witt, a professor of law and history, to chair a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming; he also appointed a further advisory group charged with considering the Witt committee’s report in relation to the Calhoun issue.  

It was these committees’ findings that informed the email that Salovey sent to the Yale community on Saturday, February 11—as it happened, just hours after The New York Times published an Op-Ed by Tobias Holden, a Yale undergrad protesting that Calhoun’s name still remained. A senior from South Carolina who recently discovered that one of his enslaved forebears was fathered by none other than John Calhoun, Holden wrote that to students of color, “the idea that this history could be erased was laughable,” because “Calhoun’s ideologies are not inert elements of the past” and “White supremacy is very much a part of our present.” It is precisely those facts, and their acknowledgement, that many on the other side may cite in urging that the name stay at a university where free inquiry and free speech are sacrosanct.

But sincere and deeply held views, especially about what causes offense, no doubt informed Salovey’s move to reverse his earlier decision, despite the precedent it seems to establish. “I was concerned about inviting a series of name changes that would obscure Yale’s past,” he wrote, before explaining that though “these concerns remain paramount…we have since established an enduring set of principles that address them.” To avoid suggesting a process existed by which all our public buildings might be renamed every few decades, Yale needed an approach that, as Salovey put it, both established “a strong presumption against renaming buildings” and enabled “thoughtful review of any future requests for change.” Those standards are “(1) whether the namesake’s principal legacy fundamentally conflicts with the university’s mission; (2) whether that principal legacy was contested during the namesake’s lifetime; (3) the reasons the university honored that person; and (4) whether the building so named plays a substantial role in forming community at Yale.” It was in accord with these that Salovey and the Yale Corporation agreed with their committees’ unanimous view “that Calhoun College presents an exceptionally strong case—perhaps uniquely strong—that allows it to overcome the powerful presumption against renaming articulated in the report.”

That the building bearing Calhoun’s name was a residential college for students, a place central to “forming community at Yale,” was crucial to that conclusion. But it was also bolstered by what a contemporary of John Calhoun, the chemist Benjamin Silliman—another prominent Yalie of the early 1800s who later had a residential college named after him—had to say about him in their own day. Salovey, in his email to the Yale community, quoted Silliman’s view that Calhoun “in a great measure changed the state of opinion and the manner of speaking and writing upon this subject in the South, until we have come to present to the world the mortifying and disgraceful spectacle of a great republic—and the only real republic in the world—standing forth in vindication of slavery, without prospect of, or wish for, its extinction.” In other words: it mattered that Calhoun was widely recognized, in his own day, as not merely a defender of slavery but a fierce advocate for it, whose central legacy is as a man whose hateful ideas shaped history. 

One may still feel, as I do, that the goal of bringing such history to light and combating its effects is an end better served, at a top university devoted to free intellectual exchange, by having the old bigot’s name on the wall than not. There are, of course, countless examples of this kind of change—Stalingrad was renamed, but retains many symbols of people who endured or even shaped that leader’s era. We have long made distinctions, in building monuments or changing them, between history’s chief advocates of cruelty and compliant followers. There’s a reason we don’t cross squares or gaze at monuments named for Goebbels in Berlin. And in this regard, it’s hard not to credit the rigor of the process behind Calhoun’s removal at Yale.  

What’s also inarguable is that our country is now led by a man who received millions fewer votes than his opponent, but won the presidency thanks to an institution—the Electoral College—that was set up to protect the interests and ideas of slave-owning states like John Calhoun’s. In the United States of America of 2017, a country that still sends more college-age black men to prison than to school, the Alabama senator who’s now in charge of the DOJ is a “law and order” man who has supported policies aimed at restricting the franchise and one of whose first official moves, as Attorney General, was to back for-profit prisons.

Barack Obama, in his final White House press conference last month, addressed the issue of voting rights in particular, in his familiar way—by pointing gently to America’s flaws while at the same time flattering our sense of ourselves. “The reason that we are the only country among advanced democracies that makes it harder to vote [rather than easier] traces directly back to Jim Crow and the legacy of slavery,” he said. “And that’s not who we are.” On the contrary: as the first part of his comment implied, that is exactly who we are. Our history may now include Barack Obama, but it also contains John Calhoun. We are, in 2017, still waging the battles of the nineteenth century.

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The Reichstag Warning


European/FPG/Getty ImagesThe shell of the Reichstag after the fire, Berlin, Germany, 1933

On February 27, 1933 the German Parliament building burned, Adolf Hitler rejoiced, and the Nazi era began. Hitler, who had just been named head of a government that was legally formed after the democratic elections of the previous November, seized the opportunity to change the system. “There will be no mercy now,” he exulted. “Anyone standing in our way will be cut down.”

The next day, at Hitler’s advice and urging, the German president issued a decree “for the protection of the people and the state.” It deprived all German citizens of basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly and made them subject to “preventative detention” by the police. A week later, the Nazi party, having claimed that the fire was the beginning of a major terror campaign by the Left, won a decisive victory in parliamentary elections. Nazi paramilitaries and the police then began to arrest political enemies and place them in concentration camps. Shortly thereafter, the new parliament passed an “enabling act” that allowed Hitler to rule by decree.    

After 1933, the Nazi regime made use of a supposed threat of terrorism against Germans from an imaginary international Jewish conspiracy. After five years of repressing Jews, in 1938 the German state began to deport them. On October 27 of that year, the German police arrested about 17,000 Jews from Poland and deported them across the Polish border. A young man named Herschel Grynszpan, sent to Paris by his parents, received a desperate postcard from his sister after his family was forced across the Polish border.  He bought a gun, went to the German embassy, and shot a German diplomat. He called this an act of revenge for the suffering of his family and his people. Nazi propagandists presented it as evidence of an international Jewish conspiracy preparing a terror campaign against the entire German people. Josef Goebbels used it as the pretext to organize the events we remember as Kristallnacht, a massive national pogrom of Jews that left hundreds dead.

The Reichstag fire shows how quickly a modern republic can be transformed into an authoritarian regime. There is nothing new, to be sure, in the politics of exception. The American Founding Fathers knew that the democracy they were creating was vulnerable to an aspiring tyrant who might seize upon some dramatic event as grounds for the suspension of our rights. As James Madison nicely put it, tyranny arises “on some favorable emergency.” What changed with the Reichstag fire was the use of terrorism as a catalyst for regime change. To this day, we do not know who set the Reichstag fire: the lone anarchist executed by the Nazis or, as new scholarship by Benjamin Hett suggests, the Nazis themselves. What we do know is that it created the occasion for a leader to eliminate all opposition.

In 1989, two centuries after our Constitution was promulgated, the man who is now our president wrote that “civil liberties end when an attack on our safety begins.” For much of the Western world, that was a moment when both security and liberty seemed to be expanding. 1989 was a year of liberation, as communist regimes came to an end in eastern Europe and new democracies were established. Yet that wave of democratization has since fallen under the glimmering shadow of the burning Reichstag. The aspiring tyrants of today have not forgotten the lesson of 1933: that acts of terror—real or fake, provoked or accidental—can provide the occasion to deal a death blow to democracy.

The most consequential example is Russia, so admired by Donald Trump. When Vlaimir V. Putin was appointed prime minister in August 1999, the former KGB officer had an approval rating of 2 percent. Then, a month later, the bombs began to explode in apartment buildings in Moscow and several other Russian cities, killing hundreds of citizens and causing widespread fear. There were numerous indications that this was a campaign organized by the KGB’s heir, now known as the FSB. Some of its officers were caught red-handed (and then released) by their peers. A Russian parliamentarian announced one of the “terror” attacks several days before the bomb actually exploded.

Putin blamed Muslim terrorists and began the war in Chechnya that made him popular. He thereafter exploited more terrorist attacks to consolidate his rule: three years later, Russian security forces ended up gassing to death Russian civilians in a botched response to an attack at a Moscow theater. Putin used the negative press coverage as a justification for seizing control of television. In 2004, after the Beslan massacre, in which terrorists occupied a school and killed a large number of parents and children during a violent confrontation with Russian forces, Putin abolished the position of elected regional governors. And so the current Russian regime was built.

Once an authoritarian regime is established, the threat of terrorism can be used to deepen repression, or indeed to promote it abroad. In 2013 and 2014 the Russian media spread hysterical reports about a non-existent Ukrainian terrorist threat as the Russian army prepared and then fought a war in Ukraine. In 2015, Russia hacked into a French television channel, pretended to be ISIS, and broadcast messages apparently intended to frighten the French population into voting for the National Front, the far-right party financially supported by Russia (and whose leader, Marine Le Pen, is expected to reach the second round of the French presidential elections to be held this April and May). In 2016, the Russian media and Russian diplomats engaged in a large-scale disinformation campaign in Germany, spreading a false tale about refugees raping a girl of Russian origin—again with the likely aim of helping the German far right.

The use of real or imagined terrorist threats to create or consolidate authoritarian regimes has become increasingly frequent worldwide. In Syria, Russia’s client Bashar al-Assad used the presence of ISIS to portray any opposition to his regime as “terrorists.” Our president has admired the methods of rule of both Assad and Putin.  In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used the July 2016 coup attempt—which he has called “terrorism supported by the West”—to justify the arrest of tens of thousands of judges, teachers, university professors, and to call for a referendum this spring that could give him sweeping new powers over the parliament and the judiciary.

It is aspiring tyrants who say that “civil liberties end when an attack on our safety begins.” Conversely, leaders who wish to preserve the rule of law find other ways to speak about real terrorist threats, and certainly do not invent them or deliberately make them worse.

In this respect, the Bush administration’s reaction to the September 11, 2001 attacks was not as awful as it might have been. To be sure, 9/11 was used to justify the vast expansion of NSA spying and the torture of foreign detainees. It also became the specious pretext for an ill-considered invasion of Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of people, spread terrorism throughout the Middle East, and ended the American century. But at least the Bush administration did not claim that Muslims as a whole were responsible, nor try to change the basic rules of the political game in the United States. Had it done so, and succeeded, we might already today be living in a post-democratic country.

If we know the history of terror manipulation, we can recognize the danger signs, and be prepared to react. It is already worrying that the president speaks unfavorably of democracy, while admiring foreign manipulators of terror. It is also of concern that the administration speaks of terrorist attacks that never took place, whether in Bowling Green or Sweden, while banning citizens from seven countries that have never been tied to any attack in the United States.

It is alarming that in a series of catastrophic executive policy decisions—the president’s Muslim travel ban, his selection of Steve Bannon as his main political adviser, his short-lived appointment of Michael Flynn as national security adviser, his proposal to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem—there seems to be a single common element: the stigmatization and provocation of Muslims. In rhetoric and action, the Trump administration has aggrandized “radical Islamic terror” thus making what Madison called a “favorable emergency” more likely.

It is the government’s job to promote both freedom and safety. If we face again a terrorist attack—or what seems to be a terrorist attack, or what the government calls a terrorist attack—we must hold the Trump administration responsible for our security. In that moment of fear and grief, when the pulse of politics might suddenly change, we must also be ready to mobilize for our constitutional rights. The Reichstag fire has long been an example for tyrants; it should today be a warning for citizens. It was the burning of the Reichstag that disabused Hannah Arendt of the “opinion that one can simply be a bystander.” Best to learn that now, rather than waiting for the flames.

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Must It Always Be Wartime?

Rosa Brooks moderating a discussion on ‘the next generation’s human rights challenges’ during a program that was cosponsored by The New York Review, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, D.C., April 2014
Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesRosa Brooks moderating a discussion on ‘the next generation’s human rights challenges’ during a program that was cosponsored by The New York Review, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, D.C., April 2014

Societies often go to great lengths to separate war from peace. Wars are declared, sometimes with elaborate ritual. Soldiers wear uniforms and are part of specialized hierarchical organizations. Battlefields are often delineated. Maintaining this distinction is important because what is permissible in wartime is often prohibited in peacetime. Preventing the rules of war from infecting views of moral conduct in times of peace is essential for preserving civilization.

Yet particularly since September 11, 2001, the line between war and peace has blurred. The “war” on terrorism that President George W. Bush chose to declare was very different from, say, the confrontations between large national forces of World War II or even traditional counterinsurgency battles on a nation’s own territory. Al-Qaeda is a shadowy organization, many of its offshoots and successors even more so. The global and decentralized threat posed by the self-declared Islamic State presents a further complication.

The decision to treat the September 11 attack as an act of war rather than a horrible crime was a policy choice (one opposed in these pages by Philip Wilcox, a former American diplomat*). We could easily imagine a President Al Gore making a different choice. But once made, the decision to pursue “war” against al-Qaeda and its associated forces had major implications.

In war, opposing combatants can be targeted and killed by virtue of their status as combatants, without regard to their conduct at that moment. Captured combatants in wars between countries can be detained without charge or trial until the end of the armed conflict. In peacetime, by contrast, law enforcement rules allow the use of lethal force only as a last resort to stop an imminent lethal threat, and detentions generally can be sustained only after charges have been filed and a trial has taken place.

In view of the stakes, the debate about the proper way to characterize efforts to counter terrorism has understandably been intense. The stakes are only higher under President Donald J. Trump, given his apparent willingness to push the limits of legality in fighting terrorism. But as is often the case when alternative conceptions compete for recognition, resolving this debate has been difficult.

Rosa Brooks suggests, in her lively, informed, and insightful new book, that we consider a different approach. Brooks is a Georgetown law professor and former human rights investigator brought up by “left-wing antiwar activists.” But she also served as counselor to Michèle Flournoy, for two years the US undersecretary of defense for policy under Obama. From that position, Brooks had an insider’s perspective on many of the most difficult policy issues facing the Pentagon. She also ended up meeting her husband, an Army Special Forces officer with experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, who she says helped her understand how the issues she was dealing with played out in reality.

Brooks discusses the implications of today’s increasingly blurred line between war and peace and concludes that we may need to transcend these old distinctions. After the atrocities of World War II, governments of leading nations drafted the series of treaties that are the basis of international human rights law, the detailed rules limiting what governments can do to people. In time of war, these rules are supplemented by international humanitarian law (also known as the laws of war or the laws of armed conflict), much of which is contained in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Protocols.

Each set of laws is quite detailed, with the Geneva Conventions alone amounting to several hundred pages. Yet the law distinguishing peace from war—determining when humanitarian law’s more permissive rules for killing and detention kick in—is surprisingly sparse, leaving much room for dispute, especially when one of the ostensible parties to a conflict is a non-state armed group or a terrorist organization.

“War” occurs when a sufficient level of hostilities takes place between sufficiently organized military forces. Among the factors considered in the various protocols, commentaries, and tribunal decisions that address the issue are the number, duration, and intensity of particular confrontations; the use of military weapons; the number of participants in the fighting; and the resulting casualties and displacement of civilians.

A confrontation between two national armies is easy to classify as war. Sporadic acts of violence by criminal syndicates or even drug cartels are widely agreed not to be war. But how does one classify the periodic attacks by such groups as al-Qaeda or ISIS beyond their territorial bases, combined with the occasional violent response by Western military forces? That the United States deploys military forces is not enough, by itself, to qualify the result as an armed conflict. If that were sufficient, then a government could justify the summary killing of “combatants” simply by using its armed forces. Yet a state can enter into “war” with a non-state armed group on grounds of the magnitude and sustained nature of its military deployment.

If the fight against terrorist groups is hard enough to classify, consider new and emerging security threats—such as cyberattacks on critical infrastructure or the use of bioengineered viruses—that do not involve the kinetic or explosive weapons of traditional war. Does it make sense to speak of “combatants” when the attacker is not an armed soldier but a hacker at a computer terminal or a scientist in a biology laboratory? And even if they are combatants, is it a proper response to such attacks to authorize shooting or bombing them from afar, as is permitted in a traditional armed conflict?

International humanitarian law is clearly in need of elaboration in order to address these newer forms of conflict, but it should at least provide the starting point. For example, biological warfare unleashing deadly pathogens or cyber warfare shutting down electrical facilities are disturbing in large part because they could inflict widespread indiscriminate and disproportionate civilian casualties—concepts that are central to humanitarian law.

Similarly, a firmer grounding in international human rights and humanitarian law would have helped to avoid the kinds of perversions of that law that were orchestrated by the Bush administration, whose attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, dismissed the Geneva Conventions as “quaint” and “obsolete” and whose Justice Department cited a “new kind of war” to authorize “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, a form of torture. In fact, despite Trump’s musings about reviving it, international law prohibits torture—indeed, makes it a crime—in times of both peace and war.

Greater attention to human rights principles might also have led Trump to temper his executive order temporarily banning visitors to the United States from seven mainly Muslim countries. Ostensibly designed to fight terrorism, it made no effort to limit its scope to people who posed any identifiable threat, at enormous personal cost, if upheld by the courts, to the 60,000 people whose visas were suddenly not recognized.

Complicating matters further is the expanding role of the US military. Today, counterinsurgency strategy is broadly understood to involve far more than fighting an opposing military. It also has come to mean protecting the civilian population and building government institutions that serve rather than prey upon people, including a legal system that protects rights. Trump is now questioning the utility of such “nation-building,” but in the meantime it has led the Pentagon to sponsor a variety of programs that have little to do with confronting enemy troops.

As Brooks describes it, US soldiers now undertake public health programs, agricultural reform efforts, small business development projects, and training in the rule of law. This expanding mandate, as Brooks shows, has enabled the Pentagon to dramatically increase its budget—few in Congress deny requests for more spending on national defense—even as austerity eviscerates the budgets of the agencies that traditionally carry out these tasks, such as the State Department and USAID.

The radically different budgets of the Pentagon and its civilian counterparts only reinforce the tendency to look to the military to address nonmilitary problems—to treat it as a “Super Walmart” ready to respond to the nation’s every foreign policy need. “It’s a vicious circle,” Brooks explains, “as civilian capacity has declined, the military has stepped into the breach.”

Yet there is a cost to a self-reinforcing cycle of militarizing US foreign policy. Pursuing economic development, undertaking agrarian reform, expanding the rule of law—these are tasks requiring considerable expertise, including linguistic skills and cultural sensitivity not usually associated with the average military recruit, still chosen foremost for strength and agility even in a world in which traditional military tasks diminish in importance.

Moreover, humanitarian and development workers have typically enjoyed a degree of protection in the field because of their neutrality—their dedication to offering services on the basis of need rather than political preference. The militarization of these efforts has contributed to the “shrinking of humanitarian space” in which aid workers give assistance; they are increasingly endangered because they are perceived as military assets. The US may not be well served by Congress’s reflexive preference for military solutions to civilian problems.

Brooks discusses these emerging legal and practical problems with the clarity of an outsider given a seat at the insider’s table. But her book focuses on a more current problem: America’s use of aerial drones to kill terrorist suspects. In places where the United States is obviously at war, such as the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan or ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the use of drones is relatively uncontroversial. Indeed, because of their exceptional accuracy, their small blast radius, and their ability to linger over an area to verify targets and choose a moment to attack when the fewest civilians are nearby, drones can help avoid civilian casualties—a central requirement of international humanitarian law.

But problems arise when drones are used in places where the US has not claimed to be at war, such as Yemen or Somalia. If law-enforcement standards are applied in such places, US security officials would still be permitted to use lethal force, but only in exceptional circumstances—when it is the only feasible way to avoid an imminent threat to life. In a 2013 speech at the National Defense University, President Obama accepted these law-enforcement standards for such situations, stating that the United States would use lethal force only against “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” and even then, only if capture is not possible and there is “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”

A US Predator drone firing a Hellfire missile
NATOA US Predator drone firing a Hellfire missile

In fact, as far as can be determined given the secrecy shrouding US drone attacks, Obama’s speech seems to have made little difference in the way attacks are actually carried out, and Trump in any event, in one of his first executive orders, has called for a reexamination of these rules. Part of the problem seems to stem from the US government’s elastic definition of a continuing “imminent” threat; its definition allows such a threat to be established regardless of how soon an alleged planned attack might take place. This sleight of hand seems to leave the United States operating more under war rules, in which a person’s status as an enemy combatant provides sufficient grounds to attack—was distinguished from the doctrine that the person must pose an imminent threat. It is as if the law-enforcement rules articulated by Obama have reverted back to war rules.

To make matters worse, even though it is unclear how the US government even makes such determinations, it sometimes seems to treat mere association with a suspect as evidence of membership in a terrorist group. That expands the range of targetable people still further—possibly beyond the definition of an enemy combatant even if war rules applied.

This matters not only for the victims of unlawful US counterterrorism efforts but also for many others. America’s monopoly on weaponized drones is already breaking down. Other governments are developing or purchasing this technology as well. Even ISIS reportedly has attacked with simple drones.

Moreover, if targeted killing is permitted under an expansive rationale for the “war against terrorism,” there may be no need for drones at all. Assassinations, poisoning, car bombs, “accidents”—there are plenty of ways to kill an “enemy combatant” once that characterization is accepted. And in an increasingly mobile world, even the most isolated governments will have opportunities to detain US citizens if broad, war-based standards for detention without charge gain wide acceptance. As Brooks notes, when the US government embraces controversial legal theories, it prepares “the way for other states to behave in similar ways.” She adds: “Let’s not kid ourselves: the legal arguments that the United States is now making will come back and bite us in the future.”

Unintended civilian casualties are not the issue. Regardless of the rules applied, the US government has a strong incentive to avoid such casualties, not only for humanitarian reasons but also because of the huge propaganda advantages they provide to terrorists. Rather, the central issue is who can be deliberately targeted. Who is the intended victim, and on what grounds?

A similar problem arises with respect to detention. In an ordinary armed conflict between countries, as noted, the laws of war permit detaining an enemy combatant until the end of the conflict. The rationale is not punitive—criminal prosecution rarely occurs and is not needed—but to prevent the combatant from returning to the battlefield and again taking up arms against the detaining power. But in traditional armed conflicts, the uniformed combatants, the battlefield, and the end of the conflict are all relatively easy to determine. As a result, there has been little requirement for judicial oversight, because most of the central facts justifying detention are obvious.

This is not so in the fight against terrorism, in which members of terrorist groups try to hide, their organizations operate under the radar, and there is no one with whom to sign an armistice even if one were desired. It is with these uncertainties in mind that the US Supreme Court granted Guantánamo detainees at least the nominal right to judicial oversight of the lawfulness of their detention. In fact, however, the federal judges involved have been extraordinarily deferential to the US military’s assessments of whether an individual is a member of an “enemy” group even when evidence is scant.

For much of the past fifteen years, the US officials favoring expansive powers to fight terrorism have been at loggerheads with human rights organizations that have been trying to limit those powers. In Brooks’s view, this debate is going nowhere because it is so difficult to demonstrate conclusively whether standards for war or for law enforcement should apply. As with the famous drawing, reproduced by Wittgenstein, that can be a rabbit or a duck depending on how you look at it, Brooks fears there is no right answer to this debate—or at least no answer that will convince someone already wedded to the opposing point of view. “Many U.S. counterterrorism practices simply defy straightforward legal categorization,” she concludes. The issue, she says, is not one of “lawbreaking, but of law’s brokenness.”

As Brooks notes, “there’s nothing natural or inevitable about any of our familiar categories or distinctions.” They reflect the concepts of a particular era. Rather than continue the effort to divide the world into two categories, she suggests “recognizing that war and peace are not binary opposites, but lie along a continuum.” The task then, she concludes, is to ask not what the law requires, since the law’s answer depends on the difficult-to-resolve dispute over the definition of war or peace. What matters instead is what is right, based on our values. Lawyers may feel less at home with this debate, she observes, but many others will feel that they can contribute to solutions.

For example, why not require some degree of judicial review before a suspect is put on the “kill list” for a drone attack? The traditional answer is that you can’t possibly have judges second-guessing split-second, life-and-death judgments on the battlefield. But that argument tends to assume that scenes of conflict resemble the Normandy invasion or even an urban battlefield where prior judicial review would indeed be impractical.

By contrast, most drone attacks today occur only after lengthy surveillance and extensive discussion among various elements of the executive branch. Rather than the anonymity of the traditional battlefield, today’s targets are often known in intimate detail. In such cases, there is plenty of time for an independent officer such as a judge to assess whether standards for using lethal force have been met. “The logic underlying the law of armed conflict’s permissive rules on status-based killing doesn’t apply here,” Brooks observes. Some judgments may still be made at the last second—such as determining when the target is most isolated in order to avoid unintended civilian casualties—but placing a target on a kill list is compatible with greater scrutiny, including judicial oversight, even if the standards of war are accepted. As Brooks points out, such a policy would help us “develop better mechanisms to prevent arbitrariness, mistake, and abuse in targeted killings.”

Similarly, even if judicial review is typically impractical and unnecessary for decisions about detention in the midst of an ordinary armed conflict, why should it not be extended to detainees like those in Guantánamo? Many of them find themselves accused of terrorist associations on flimsy grounds (using “intelligence” provided by dubious informants or even following torture), and their lengthy detention in the “forever war” against terrorism provides plenty of opportunity and need for an independent assessment.

In my view, Brooks has made a fresh and useful argument, but she carries it too far. I would not give up on the basic distinction between war and law enforcement, because to a very significant extent, at least under Obama, that argument was won in favor of the requirements of law enforcement, which are more protective of rights. Obama abandoned Bush’s “global war on terrorism” rhetoric. In his speech at the National Defense University, Obama endorsed the application of law-enforcement standards to drone attacks that do not take place in obvious war zones, even if his requirement of “imminence” was stretched beyond common understanding and the evidence used to select a target is often weak. As a practical matter, Obama also rejected the standards of war for detaining new terrorist suspects. During his eight years in office, all such suspects were brought into the criminal justice system for prosecution; no one new was sent to Guantánamo and its limitless detention, even if Obama continued to rely on war standards to deal with the Bush detainees at Guantánamo. This is important ground won that I would not cede, especially as we enter the uncertainties of the Trump administration.

Indeed, in the current political environment in which populist politicians are ascendant and centrist leaders often seem to have lost their voice, I would be reluctant to embark on any new attempt to set global standards on something as sensitive as counterterrorism policy. The opponents of stronger limits on governmental powers to kill or detain are now likely to come from both the White House and the Kremlin. Even Theresa May, the new British prime minister, vowed at the most recent Conservative Party conference “never again” to “let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave—the men and women of [Britain’s] armed forces.” In such circumstances, it is unlikely that new standards would be more protective than the current ones.

But it may still be worth using Brooks’s argument to secure whatever additional safeguards we can from those who would continue to rely on war standards to counter terrorism. I would rephrase her argument not as a substitute for the “category problem” she identifies of distinguishing between war and peace but as a supplement to it. For example, one might argue: even if you think US drone attacks in Yemen should be governed by war rules, and granted the difficulty of judicial oversight in the midst of classic combat, surely we should accept some judicial oversight for the more deliberative actions taking place on the “battlefield.”

Or even if you think counterterrorism detentions should be governed by war rules, with very limited judicial scrutiny, surely we should accept more oversight before detention in a “conflict” in which it is difficult to say who the combatants are, or where the “war” takes place, and when it ends. Indeed, we should strongly prefer criminal prosecution to mere detention. These arguments should not be understood to substitute for rules of law enforcement, but to improve upon an unfettered application of war standards for those who still refuse to accept any law-enforcement approach to addressing terrorism.

As Brooks shows us, the battle of competing standards may well have left insufficient protection of the fundamental rights not to be killed or summarily detained. But the nuanced set of questions she poses should be used as much as possible to supplement existing standards, not to abandon them. Otherwise, we risk undermining the important if imperfect protections we already have. And with countries as diverse as Russia, Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates today all involved in active efforts against armed or terrorist groups outside their territories, any weakening of the rules would give those countries greater latitude too—a frightening thought.

  1. *

    Philip C. Wilcox Jr., “The Terror,” The New York Review, October 18, 2001. 

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Submerged in the Cosmic Kingdom

Detail of the swimming competition for Gopa, in the Red Assembly Hall, Tholing, 1436-1449
J. Poncar/Peter van HamDetail of the swimming competition for Gopa, in the Red Assembly Hall, Tholing, 1436-1449

Among the Shangri-Las scattered through the remote mountain valleys and passes of the Himalayas and the Karakoram, the most exotic may well be the once flourishing medieval kingdom of Guge. It’s not so easy to go there; the closest airport is at Ali (Ngari) in far western China, still a grueling ten-hour drive or more from the great Guge sites. The roads south from Lhasa, some 1,200 miles away, are a challenge. The altitude is high, the climate harsh, the entire route rough as a real pilgrimage should be.

Guge was once home to a major inner-Asian dynasty whose artists and craftsmen produced a plethora of masterpieces over some five centuries. Although many of these works did not survive the Chinese Cultural Revolution, those that did—including some large-scale murals and exquisitely carved and painted sculptures depicting Buddhist visions of the cosmos and its deities—give us a tantalizing sense of the lost world that imagined them into being. These works, little known in the West largely because of Guge’s inaccessible location, have now been richly and systematically documented in the photographer and art historian Peter van Ham’s astonishing new book, Guge: Ages of Gold.

A row of Guge stupas near Tholing, in the tenth-century Kashmir-informed style, 2009
D. Bendak//Peter van HamA row of Guge stupas near Tholing, in the tenth-century Kashmir-informed style, 2009

The modern political borders of Guge and its hinterland are misleading: historic western Tibet is split today among India (the far, high-altitude northern region of Spiti and Kinnaur), Pakistan, the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China, and the western reaches of Nepal. We would do better to imagine this region (known as Nari Khorsum in Tibetan) as a continuous world of high mountain ranges connected by steep passes and relatively fertile valleys, with its political center eventually fixed on the stark mountaintop of Tsaparang and its religious-intellectual life centered in the famous monastery of Tholing, both in Guge.

Tholing, one of the most important historic sites of Tibetan Buddhism, was spectacularly creative throughout the first half of the second millennium AD, when the Guge kings repeatedly commissioned the building, renovation, and expansion of temples and stupa shrines along with their elaborate iconographic sequences of painting and sculpture. Many of the artists, whose names we unfortunately do not know, must have belonged to the huge Tholing monastic establishment itself.

guge-map

Mike King

The monumental paintings that have survived in the Guge caves and temple-monasteries guide the meditating monk, also the casual visitor, through overlapping universes. They follow an iconographic program set out in detail in Sanskrit texts known as the Tantras of Practice. At the center of many of the artistic sequences (in Guge as in the famous monastery of Tabo in the Spiti Valley in the Indian Himalayas) is the Buddha of Intense Light, Vairocana, one of a series of three, or five, or thirty-seven, or even a thousand Buddhas and other divine beings who, worshiped together, can release the disciplined seeker from all sorrow. These painted and sculpted mandala diagrams, each of them a world in its own right meant for pragmatic use on the path toward liberation, belong to several distinct periods and styles.

Many of the finest images come from the eleventh and twelfth centuries and reflect the influence of Kashmiri models, though there are later masterpieces as well, from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (the so-called Second Golden Age), notably in the royal shrines at the capital Tsaparang. It is sad to have to report that in van Ham’s estimate the Cultural Revolution destroyed 99 percent of the Guge treasures, including the vast, intricately decorated complex built around the Tsugla Khang sanctuary at Tholing. Still, what is left is a remarkable archive of western Tibetan art created according to the guidelines set down in major Tantric texts such as the Compendium of Truth about All Buddhas and, especially, the Purification of All Evil Outcomes (also, somewhat later, the texts known as Supreme Tantras with their esoteric sexual imagery). The Guge paintings thus share, with much local inflection, the conceptual and aesthetic worlds of greater Western Tibet and the iconographic programs informed by the Mahayana Buddhist ethos of visualization, meditation, and profound self-transformation. The latter goal is to be attained with the help of a pantheon of Buddhas and other deities conjured up by the artists and by the practitioner’s own mind.

Detail of a wall painting in the Red Temple showing members of the Guge royal family attending the consecration of the temple, Tsparang, fifteenth century
L. Fournier/Peter van HamDetail of a wall painting in the Red Temple showing members of the Guge royal family attending the consecration of the temple, Tsparang, fifteenth century

Guge rose to prominence in the tenth century following the collapse of the early Tibetan empire ruled from central Tibet. Tibetans speak of a “second diffusion” (chidar) of Buddhism to the high mountain plateaus under the patronage of the Guge kings, who developed a distinctive form of political organization: one of the royal princes would assume what might be called secular power, while his brothers and nephews would take monastic vows; among them, one became abbot of the Tholing monastery and thus emerged as the religious leader of the entire Guge region. Our modern categories should not, however, mislead us.

In Guge, as later in Tibet as a whole, the monastic-intellectual aristocracy retained immense political and economic power. There were also times when king and abbot vied for control of the rich resources of this Silk-Road kingdom; such rivalry may have played a part in the arrival in Guge in 1630 of an army from Ladakh that, after a brutal siege, demolished the capital of Tsaparang and killed the last of the great Guge kings—the beginning of the end for the kingdom. This episode is the subject of a visually powerful but highly romanticized film released in 2006 by Discovery Networks and France 5—Guge, The Lost Kingdom of Tibet—largely in the Shangri-La genre, but with excellent commentary by archaeologists John Bellezza and Tsering Gyalpo.

Guge: Ages of Gold is a companion volume to van Ham’s earlier book on the great monastery of Tabo, which I wrote about previously for the NYR Daily. As in that volume, his photographs of the murals and sculptures of monastic and temple sites in small villages such as Charang, Ropa, Poo, and Nako (on the Indian side of the Chinese border) are at the outer limit of what is humanly possible—limpid, subtly textured, incandescent. The reader feels that he or she is seeing directly through van Ham’s eyes.

Detail of the Manjushri Mandala at the Temple of the Great Translator, Nako, late eleventh to early twelfth century
Peter van HamDetail of the Manjushri Mandala at the Temple of the Great Translator, Nako, late eleventh to early twelfth century

One needs time to immerse oneself in the visionary worlds of these paintings; van Ham’s text helps by identifying the many Buddhas, Buddhas-to-be, gods, goddesses, and demons by noting the iconographic cycles to which they belong and the evolution of artistic styles. Consider, for example, the amazing cosmogram known as the Mandala of the Buddha-to-Be, Manjusri (“Gentle Wonder”), Lord of Sound and Stuff of Truth, at the Temple of the Great Translator in Nako (perhaps datable to the twelfth century). Seen in abstract geometric reduction, we have a set of embedded squares opening up, like flowers, into painted circles of five or, at the center, nine painted figures. An almost unimaginable concentration of Buddhist goddesses and Hindu deities linked to points on the compass and to various mythic roles constitute a world in rapid movement. It is as if the business of creation and cosmic devolution—a vision common to both these religions—had been arrested for just long enough for these beings to assume visible form.

A great delicacy of line and color is evident in many of the Nako Mandala images, for example that of the little-known god Jayakara, an attendant of the greater deity Vishnu, or that of the Creator, Brahma, finely dressed in East-Iranian fabric and riding two white geese. This over-populated universe is no utopia; there are spooky characters such as black Yama, lord of death and the underworld, and the skeletal Bhringin, a forlorn hyper-male lacking the flesh that comes only from the feminine, who is also the eternal witness to his master Siva’s obsession with playing dice (Siva, incidentally, powerful deity that he is, always loses at this game). One clearly needs to view this mandala as a whole, but also to engage with its individual figures and to sense their distinct textures; more to the point, the spectator is expected to do something useful with this detailed map of the cosmos, something that will change his life.

Detail of a wall painting showing Brahma, the God of Creation, with four heads and four arms, riding two geese, Nako, late eleventh to early twelfth century
Peter van HamDetail of a wall painting showing Brahma, the God of Creation, with four heads and four arms, riding two geese, Nako, late eleventh to early twelfth century

It is good to keep in mind that images such as these are organized in careful patterns meant not merely to make the divine beings present—more precisely, to create them out of the thick emptiness that infuses all that is—but also to allow them, once brought into being, literally to enter into the heart of the adept who is capable of receiving them. Once inside, they can be dissolved back into the emptiness that is their source. Note the mental relief that this sense of infinite spaciousness can provide. 

Paradoxically, such infinite spaciousness tends to be experienced in relatively cramped physical spaces, meant for circumambulation of a central set of sculpted images or for meditative meandering along the densely painted walls. I have not been to Guge, but I have seen similar Dukhang assembly rooms and their associated shrines in nearby Ladakh. One enters a narrow chamber crammed with images in familiar yet always somehow divergent, innovative sequences that at first overwhelm the visitor’s eyes and baffle the mind through sheer profusion. If the caretakers of such sanctuaries allow one to linger in these teeming worlds, and if one has the patience required to see deeply into them, the painted surface may crack open to reveal hidden shadows and, still further inside, an unnerving luminosity. At some point it becomes clear that the walls and pillars are themselves no more than brittle surfaces projected outward from a vibrant interior where the deities live, and where they can be reached, seen, touched, and at least momentarily known.

Temple room in the Dungkar Cave 1, one of four caves that were residences of the Guge dynasty from about 1100 onwards
M. Beck/Peter van HamTemple room in the Dungkar Cave 1, one of four caves that were residences of the Guge dynasty from about 1100 onwards, 2015

Tibetan Buddhism must rank among the most optimistic of the great world religions, since it asserts, with conviction born from centuries of disciplined experimentation, that the human mind has the potential to see reality as it truly is and that the mind can realize that potential through processes of training, purification, polishing, and continuous self-examination. Insight, prajna, though unpredictable, can flash through a mind engaged in such processes, transforming it in ways that enhance the free and compassionate nature that is our birthright. Prajna is also a living goddess whom we see on the walls of sanctuaries, often depicted as the consort of a Buddha or Bodhisattva, for example in the image of green Karmavajri in the Red Assembly Hall at Tholing or as the Perfection of Insight, Prajnaparamita, in the White Temple there. Here is another general principle in action: we have to imagine a world that inhabits the mind, arises and vanishes there, moving through an infinite series of mental metamorphoses, but that is at the same time entirely tangible, real, personal, and causally effective. A mental world is no less durable—arguably, it is far more durable—than the Himalayan mountains and arid deserts of western Tibet, visible outside the monasteries and the caves.

Clay statue of Vajradharma, Amitabha's first Bodhisattva, in the Temple of the Self-Born Guardian (Rangrig Tse Lhakhang), mid-eleventh century
Peter van HamClay statue of Vajradharma, Amitabha’s first Bodhisattva, in the Temple of the Self-Born Guardian, Charang, Guge, mid eleventh century

Never has empty space been so full. Buddhas already enlightened or Bodhisattvas on the verge of enlightenment haunt the walls of these shrines “like sesame seeds packed in a pod” or “like motes of dust swirling through infinite worlds,” as the Tantric texts say. Entire universes present themselves in seductive colors: thus in the important Nature-of-Diamond complex seen, with considerable local variation, in so many of the Guge sites, the white Vairocana is encircled by the green Buddha known as Amoghasiddhi, “Never Fruitless;” the yellow-orange Ratnasambhava, “Born of Jewel”; the red Amitabha, “Infinite Radiance”; and the glowing blue Akshobhya, “Imperturbable” (see the striking and playful set of painted clay figures at the Ropa temple.

These colors, linked to specific attributes associated with each member of this five-fold set, are seen as if refracted by unblemished, transparent crystal, the adamantine element (vajra-dhatu) that permeates any Buddha’s awareness and may also permeate ours. Colorless crystal thus generates a sparkling chromatic range, often radiating from a dark-blue backdrop, strangely satisfying to the eye; within this varied palette, there is a noticeable drift toward warm hues of red and crimson, though the most moving images, in my view, are painted green-to-gold.

Painting showing the story of the Conversion of the Householder Yasa, who became a mendicant and was established as an Arhat, in the Red Temple in Tsparang, Guge, 1436-1449 (?)
L. Fournier/Peter van HamPainting showing the story of the Conversion of the Householder Yasa, who became a mendicant and was established as an Arhat, in the Red Temple in Tsparang, Guge, fifteenth century

We can see these figures—but in fact, on a deeper level of existence, we are meant to hear them, for each resonates as a particular mantra, or as the “seed” of sound sequences that, taken one by one, can radically transform what passes for external reality. I realize this statement may seem puzzling, and rather unlikely, so let me give an example or two. Perhaps the most beloved of all Buddhas-to-Be, the many-headed Avalokiteshvara, exists not only in his visible images but, on a more primary level, as the syllabic and musical sequence ra ra hum jah. Uttering this mantra under proper conditions makes this deity accessible to perception. If one replaces the above mantric syllables with the sequence ha ha ha sutanu, the handsome Bodhisattva known as Kshiti-garbha may appear and reveal his secret wisdom—or, more precisely, he may activate that same wisdom from its latent but hitherto unconscious existence within the practitioner’s mind.

Avalokiteshvara painting of a fisherman in distress during a storm, in the northeast stupa of the Mother Monastery in Tholing, Kashmiri origin, possibly of the foundation period
Namgyal/Peter van HamAvalokiteshvara painting of a fisherman in distress during a storm, in the northeast stupa of the Temple of Yeshe Ö, Tholing, Kashmiri origin, circa eleventh century

No one should assume that such sound patterns are arbitrary accretions to an evolving ritual practice, nor should we think of them as symbolic or as meaningful in the ways that language normally conveys reference. They are, rather, pragmatic and effectual: the eye sees what the tongue utters and the ear can hear. The Guge caves and temples are thus alive with visible sound, a painted or sculpted symphony designed to change the consciousness of whoever is listening. It is no small achievement to have captured those sounds on the walls of the Guge caves, or—even more impressive—on a page. Such pre-semantic sounds, sometimes described as a barely audible murmur or quiver, are also defined by the Tantric texts as gates or doorways, opening up dimensions of existence and sensation that are normally blocked to human perception. What we see in the paintings is both the sound-syllables themselves, vibrating, buzzing, singing, and the gradual emergence of a path that can be entered through many gateways, each echoing with a secret sonic key.

Detail of a wall painting showing the bodhisattva Maitreya on the south wall of the Red Assembly Hall, Tholing, 1436-1449
L. Fournier/Peter van HamDetail of a wall painting showing the bodhisattva Maitreya on the south wall of the Red Assembly Hall, Tholing, 1436-1449

I have followed the Buddhist sources in speaking of the “mind,” but the English word and its associations should not confuse us. The paintings are far from cerebral; indeed, cognition itself, or analytical understanding, are both suspect in these Tantric systems. We might speak instead of a passionate emptiness shimmering with light and joyful abundance. The Buddhist Tantras, many of them translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan in Guge itself by the prolific translator Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055), have ways of elucidating their basic tenets, sometimes couched in enigmatic terms. In “Vairocana’s Sutra of Enlightenment,” the immensely popular Vairocanabhisambodhi Sutra, also known as the “King of Very Long Texts,” Vairocana explains the point of meditative and ritual practice to his acolyte Vajrapani, Bearer of the Lightning Bolt, soon to become a Buddha himself:

The Buddha said, “Lord of Mysteries, what is awakening (bodhi)? It means to know one’s mind as it really is.” Vajrapāṇi then said to the Buddha, “World-honored One, who is it that seeks omniscience? Who is it that accomplishes perfect awakening?” The Buddha said, “Lord of Mysteries, it is in one’s own mind that one seeks awakening and omniscience. Why? Because its original nature is pure. The mind is neither within nor without, nor can the mind be apprehended between the two. Lord of Mysteries, the Tathāgata [the Buddha], worthy [of worship] and perfectly and fully awakened, is neither blue nor yellow nor red nor white nor crimson nor the color of crystal, neither long nor short nor round nor square, neither bright nor dark, and neither male nor female nor neuter… The mind, which has the characteristic of empty space, is free from all differentiation and non-differentiation. In this manner, Lord of Mysteries, the three entities of mind, the realm of empty space, and awakening are without duality. They have compassion as their root.”

This sounds good, but how is one actually to experience such things, to know them for oneself with certainty? Duality is our ingrained habit, antimonies and polarities the foundation of thought itself. From its earliest beginnings, Buddhism has had an empirical and skeptical streak; the Buddha is said to have told his disciples, “Don’t take my words on faith; experiment on yourselves.” But our default awareness is hardly luminous with insight; if you’re like me, you live mostly in an encompassing fog. So what are we to do? Will we ever taste the truth?

Detail of a wall painting showing the inner offering goddess Gandha holding a shell filled with perfume, Nako, late eleventh or early twelfth century
Peter van HamDetail of a wall painting showing the inner offering goddess Gandha holding a shell filled with perfume, Nako, late eleventh or early twelfth century

One could try the Buddhist Tantric path and spend twenty years meditating in a cave under the watchful eyes of the cumulating, colorful Buddhas-to-be. The texts say this works wonders. On the other hand, it’s not impossible that we do see into the heart of reality, naturally, without premeditation, in fleeing moments that leave subtle, unconscious traces in the mind—intimations of a oneness lying just beneath or above or within the endless proliferation of selves and forms that we inhabit.

For all its richly articulated structures of practice and its fondness for disciplined visualization of hidden worlds, Tibetan Buddhism shares something with the Hindu non-dualist system of the Advaita, which claims that ignorance—our inevitable point of departure—is actually so precarious that the slightest breath of air may, under the right circumstances, be enough to do away with it forever. It’s like trying to walk while balancing an apple on your nose. We all have, so they say, intimate, profound, congenital knowledge of truth. In fact, this is the only form of dependable knowledge human beings can claim, though only rarely do they fully acknowledge it and use it. Usually, something from outside has to trigger a deeper self-awareness. So if you are wondering what it might feel like to turn yourself into Vairocana, a dense yet empty mass of light and sound, also defined as insight, that is the stuff of all reality as well as our only means of hearing and seeing what is real—you could start by opening this book.

Painting of Vaishravana, Lord of the Yakshas, and the Realm of Plenty, in the White Temple of the Ornamented World, Tholing, fifteenth century
G. Schwantes/Peter van HamPainting of Vaishravana, Lord of the Yakshas, and the Realm of Plenty, in the White Temple of the Ornamented World, Tholing, fifteenth century

Peter van Ham’s Guge: Ages of Gold. The West Tibetan Masterpieces has just been published by Hirmer Verlag.

 

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Our Animal History

Pressed fish specimen (<em>Zeus faber</em>) collected by Carl Linnaeus, 1758
Linnean Society, LondonPressed fish specimen (Zeus faber) collected by Carl Linnaeus, 1758

The first instinct of an eighteenth-century naturalist when he (and they were usually “he”) saw a bird or animal that he didn’t recognize was to shoot it. Then draw it, dissect it, stuff it, identify it, and name it. Cabinets in country vicarages, grand mansions, and learned societies were full of “skins”—of fish, birds, reptiles, mammals. The naturalists felt part of he great Enlightenment drive to order nature, an ordering that was in its way both as arrogant and as humble as accepting the Biblical “great chain of being.” In both systems humans came top, whether in the Garden of Eden or a scientific collection. (Indeed Genesis makes Adam sound like the earliest taxonomist: “whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name therof.”) The fascinating exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, “Making Nature,” investigates our long history of trying to comprehend the wealth of the animal world, while also making us dizzily aware that we are, after all, animals ourselves. Where do we fit? How have our visions of nature changed? How responsible are we for today’s rampaging loss of habitat and species?

One of the joys of these darkened rooms is the way that works of art share space with the scientific exhibits, often making the latter themselves seem fantastical. The items on show range from children’s games and Beatrix Potter’s careful drawings to black humming-bird plumes used as a headdress, or the bizarre taxidermy diorama from 1900 by Walter Potter (no relation to Beatrix), Squirrels Playing Cards. Leaping forward a century, in Edwina Ashton’s 2002 video Moth, the artist appears as a giant insect in her moth costume. While she floats through the rooms a deadpan voice reads from a natural history text, including chilling instructions: “To retain their colouring green insects should be killed by potassium cyanide while the emeralds should be killed by ammonia.” The effect is unsettling, reminding us that displaying “nature” is a complex, many-faceted, ever-changing imaginative act.


Collection of Pat and Mary MorrisWalter Potter’s taxidermy diorama, Squirrels Playing Cards (detail), 1900–1910

In Britain at the end of last year, we were enraptured by David Attenborough’s new BBC series Planet Earth 2. Gazing safely at our screens, we could marvel at flamingos on the icy South American lakes, at monkeys leaping across Indian rooftops, at snow leopards pacing the Himalayan peaks. There was something of this wonder, too, in the early attempts to catalog the natural world. It is astounding, for instance, to find at the Wellcome the great chart made by Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, for his Systema Natura in 1735 and to see an engraving of his bedroom papered with proofs of botanical drawings, or to imagine him poring over the dried and pressed fish that he established as a “type”—a primary indicator—for identifying a John Dory.

Linnaeus gave us the ordering we still use: family, genus, and species. He classed humans as animals for the first time, too, using the term homo sapiens in 1758. But is wisdom, or reason, really the quality that separates us from the animals? It’s typical of this challenging exhibition to display Jonathan Swift’s tough description of the ape-like Yahoos in the same room as the Linnaean chart, and to match John Wilkins’s “Great Ladder of Being” of 1783, which put “Man” firmly at the top, by quoting Borges’s essay on Wilkins, in which he invents a crazy Chinese encyclopedia, and concludes, “it is clear that there is no classification of the Universe not being arbitrary and full of conjectures.”

<em>Musa Cliffortiana</em> (Clifford’s banana plant), engraving by Martin Hoffman, 1736
Musa Cliffortiana (Clifford’s banana plant), engraving by Martin Hoffman, 1736

People wanted to see these creatures, as well as order them. The second room in the exhibition shows how “Displaying” reflects popular cultural beliefs about the way animals live in the wild, and how the first natural history museums founded in Western nations also had political undertones—as if trapping and naming wild animals was a symbolic act of empire, the domination of “savage” lands. Beneath that confidence ran a nervousness about ideas of evolution, as apparent in the designs here for Richard Owen’s Natural History Museum, his “Cathedral to nature,” which opened in South Kensington in 1881: Could Darwin’s theories be reconciled with the idea of a divine creator? Everywhere there are patterns imposed on apparent chaos, nowhere more beautifully that in Werner and Syme’s 1814 Nomenclature of Colours (which Darwin took with him on the Beagle), giving every shade in its subtle range an animal, vegetable, and mineral equivalent. Thus “Tile Red” appears in “The Breast of the Cock Bullfinch, Shrubby Pimpernel, and Porcelain Jasper.” 

Set of twenty-nine papier-mâche models of horses' teeth by Dr. Louis Auzoux, France, circa 1890
Whipple MuseumSet of twenty-nine papier-mâche models of horses’ teeth by Dr. Louis Auzoux, France, circa 1890

By now, having left the chattering lunchtime crowds in the Wellcome’s café far behind, I was beginning to feel strangely disoriented, even uncomfortable. In observing the observers, I was becoming one of them, finding that nature comes draped in romantic myths as well as tagged with scientific labels. Over time, many zoos provided stories or famous animals that the crowds could identify with and take to their hearts, like the London Zoo’s Jumbo the Elephant, whose sale to Barnum’s Circus in 1882 roused a storm of protest. This kind of personal sympathy also prompted ideas of wilderness lands and lost innocence: when the Smithsonian taxidermist William Temple Hornaday traveled west to shoot bison for a new exhibit in 1886, the sight of the diminishing herds turned him into an early conservationist, founder of the Bronx Zoo. Yet to a Brit like myself, the myth of man as hunter, on the frontier plains, still seems oddly part of the American psyche. I laughed when I heard that Betsy DeVos, Trump’s new secretary of education, had suggested that Wyoming schoolteachers carry guns, in case a grizzly bear thundered into the classroom—but it’s not funny. 

We can make animals into prey, or into art exhibits, as the modernist architects did at the London Zoo in the 1930s , displaying their outlines against stark architectural forms. We can tame them in books, films, children’s cartoons, shops full of teddy bears. But animals will always remain mysterious and unknowable—“potential grizzlies.” They can turn into figures of nightmare. As I looked at the illustrations of the ferocious, irrational orangutan engraved for Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1870, I couldn’t help thinking of Moby Dick, King Kong, or the shark in Jaws. In “real life” we cannot get truly close, even if we live side by side.

A still from Phillip Warnell's Ming of Harlem, 2016
A still from Phillip Warnell’s Ming of Harlem, 2016

The most dramatic contemporary work in the show is Philip Warnell’s double-screen video installation Ming of Harlem: Twenty-One Stories in the Air (2016). This follows the story of Antoine Yates, who defied all the rules against pets in his high-rise apartment and installed a Bengal tiger called Ming , and a huge green alligator named Al. It was an impossible dream, Yates says, gesturing across the street: “This was the challenge, right there.” They lived together for years. When Yates went to the ER after a mauling in 2003, the police abseiled down the building and entered the apartment through the window, shooting Ming and Al with tranquilizer darts before carting them off to a zoo. In Warnell’s installation, on a huge screen, the tiger paces restlessly, growling at the walls, and the alligator waddles across the carpet, flicking its mighty tail. The beasts seem both brave and forlorn, beautiful and terrible, rightly dwarfing Yate’s comments on his experience and the scenes of daily life on the small screen beside them.

We humans constantly intervene in animal lives, making them part of our own history. The final room in this engrossing show focuses on the work of the Center for PostNatural History in Pittsburgh, which records such interventions. Here is the mosquito, genetically altered so that it can’t carry dengue fever. Here is the alcoholic lab rat from Finland, reared so that scientists can test a way for cure a national addiction. Here are budgerigars, small Australian parakeets, whose genes have been modified “to express a rainbow of different hues.” I found it strange, after being in their company, to come out onto the busy Euston Road among bustling human animals in their city clothes. I began to wonder just how we might be modifying ourselves.

Budgie specimens (<em>Melopsittacus undulatus</em>) illustrating color variations, 1935–1957
Trustees of the Natural History MuseumBudgie specimens (Melopsittacus undulatus) illustrating color variations, 1935–1957

“Making Nature: How We See Animals” is at the Wellcome Collection in London through May 21.

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The Very Drugged Nazis

Adolf Hitler presenting Theodor Morell, his personal physician, with the Knight’s Cross of the War Merit Cross at his headquarters, 1944
Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild/Getty ImagesAdolf Hitler presenting Theodor Morell, his personal physician, with the Knight’s Cross of the War Merit Cross at his headquarters, 1944

Norman Ohler, a German journalist, novelist, and filmmaker, was intrigued when a disc jockey in Berlin told him that the Third Reich was riddled with drugs and suggested that somebody should make a film about it. Ohler began to study the subject, thinking at first to write a novel, but then decided not to treat it as fiction, even though he lacked historical training. After his research in German and American archives had progressed, Ohler approached one of the leading German historians of the Nazi era, the late Hans Mommsen. Mommsen was impressed by his findings and became his unofficial supervisor.

At the core of Ohler’s book lie the fundamental paradox and shameless hypocrisy of Nazism. Its ideology demanded purity of body, blood, and mind. Adolf Hitler was portrayed as a vegetarian teetotaler who would allow nothing to corrupt him. Drugs were depicted as part of a Jewish plot to poison and weaken the nation—Jews were said to “play a supreme part” in the international drug trade—and yet nobody became more dependent on cocktails of drugs than Hitler, and no armed forces did more to enhance their troops’ performance than the Wehrmacht did by using a version of methamphetamine. Although Ohler’s book does not fundamentally change the history of the Third Reich, it is an account that makes us look at this densely studied period rather differently.

In the nineteenth century, Germany led the world in chemical and pharmaceutical research. In 1805, while Goethe was writing Faust in Weimar, Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner was experimenting with opium poppies in Paderborn and eventually isolated morphine. In 1827, the pharmaceutical industry began with Heinrich Emanuel Merck, an apothecary in Darmstadt who, Ohler writes, had a “business model of supplying alkaloids and other medications in unvarying quality.” A quarter of a century later, morphine became available for pain relief in military surgery.

Germany maintained its lead over the world mainly because the country had so many well-educated chemists. One from the Bayer Company in 1897 synthesized aspirin from willow bark. Eleven days later, the same man, Felix Hoffmann, created diacetyl morphine, which was trademarked as Heroin. Bayer advertised and sold it as a cure for headaches, for cough relief, and to help babies sleep. Profits were enormous. Political and social upheaval only seemed to increase the market. Even in revolutionary Petrograd, the consumption of cocaine soared among young commissars and their mistresses from noble families, as memorably depicted in M. Ageyev’s Novel with Cocaine.

In bankrupt Germany after World War I, the psychic and physical trauma of the conflict made Germans desperate for the industry’s products. Opiates were preferred to alcohol, as popular songs in Berlin cabarets revealed:

Once not so very long ago
Sweet alcohol, that beast,
Brought warmth and sweetness to our lives,
But then the price increased.
And so cocaine and morphine
Berliners now select.
Let lightning flashes rage outside
We snort and we inject!

In 1925 the immensely powerful chemical and pharmaceutical corporation I.G. Farben was created out of an amalgamation of many different companies. In the following year German exports of opium accounted for 40 percent of the global market, while just three German companies controlled 80 percent of the worldwide cocaine market.

The drug-fueled escapism of the Weimar years helped turn Berlin into what Alfred Döblin called the “Whore of Babylon,” while the collapse of the currency in 1923 contributed to the collapse of liberal and conservative institutions and values. For both Communists and Nazis, the impression of total dissolution offered an obvious target. The Nazis seized the opportunity to imply that Jews were behind every aspect of the Weimar Republic, which they called the “Jewish Republic.” Jews were equated with toxins, bacilli, and pathogens.

Having falsely accused Jews of being organizers of the drug trade as well as its main clients, the Nazis, through the Reich Health Office, introduced laws and regulations to control drugs and the lives of addicts. They were termed “psychopathic personalities” and forbidden to marry. Compulsory sterilization was introduced. “For reasons of racial hygeine,” the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring stated, “we must therefore see to it that severe addicts are prevented from reproducing.” The parallel with anti-Semitic legislation, particularly the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935, was entirely clear.

In deliberate contrast, the Nazis portrayed Hitler as the archetypal clean-living man, sacrificing himself for his country through overwork. “He is,” the Nazi official Gregor Strasser wrote, “all genius and body. And he mortifies that body in a way that would shock people like us! He doesn’t drink, he practically only eats vegetables, and he doesn’t touch women.” Rather as Soviet Communists were at one time expected to forswear bourgeois love to focus their emotions on their great leader Stalin, Germans were encouraged to indulge in a collective ecstasy over Hitler. And yet already in the spring of 1936, Hitler started on the path to becoming a drug addict himself, of the very sort that the Nazis wanted to prevent from reproducing.

Dr. Theodor Morell, a specialist in skin conditions and sexually transmitted diseases, had become a member of the Nazi Party in 1933 after someone smeared the word “jew” outside his office (though he wasn’t Jewish). Using his wife’s money, he set up a medical practice on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin and became increasingly fashionable. He prescribed “vitamins” to his growing clientele, but they were often enhanced with testosterone and anabolic steroids for men or an extract of nightshade for women, which gave their eyes a hypnotic effect. He became famous for his dexterity with injections.

In the spring of 1936, a telephone call from Nazi Party headquarters in Munich summoned him to cure Hitler’s photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, of gonorrhea. A plane was sent for him and afterward Morell and his wife were given a holiday in Venice. At a dinner party arranged by Hoffmann, Morell was introduced to Hitler, who talked of his intestinal pains. Morell suggested he might have a cure, and soon the Führer became known in the doctor’s notebooks as “Patient A.”

Morell’s success, according to Ohler, lay in not questioning or touching Hitler too much. Instead he simply provided short-term stimulants with his apparently painless injections. On some occasions he was injecting Hitler several times a day. Depending on his patient’s state of mind and body, the shots could include glucose, cocaine, morphine, and essence of pig’s liver and heart. Hitler, the dedicated vegetarian and teetotaler, saw his intravenous diet of animal extracts and hard drugs as medicine. He furiously rejected any doubts expressed by his entourage about Morell’s treatments. In order to ward off criticism, he even made his doctor an honorary professor. Morell prospered and acquired a handsome villa next door to Dr. Josef Goebbels on Schwanenwerder Island in Berlin, but he had little time to enjoy it.

During this pre-war period, the reviving German economy concentrated on synthetic alternatives for many products—among them Buna to replace rubber and gasoline made from coal. The British naval blockade of Germany in World War I had caused serious shortages of many raw materials, and Hitler was determined that when he next took Germany to war, the country would be fully prepared. Even drugs were synthesized by the major pharmaceutical companies, including Bayer and Merck.

The use of Benzedrine by American athletes in the 1936 Berlin Olympics prompted the Temmler company on the edge of Berlin to focus on creating a more powerful version. By the autumn of 1937, its chief chemist, Dr. Fritz Hauschild (in postwar years the drug provider for East German athletes), created a synthesized version of methamphetamine. This was patented as Pervitin. It produced intense sensations of energy and self-confidence.

In pill form Pervitin was marketed as a general stimulant, equally useful for factory workers and housewives. It promised to overcome narcolepsy, depression, low energy levels, frigidity in women, and weak circulation. The assurance that it would increase performance attracted the Nazi Party’s approval, and amphetamine use was quietly omitted from any anti-drug propaganda. By 1938, large parts of the population were using Pervitin on an almost regular basis, including students preparing for exams, nurses on night duty, businessmen under pressure, and mothers dealing with the pressures of Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church—to which the Nazis thought women should be relegated). Ohler quotes from letters written by the future Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll, then serving in the German army, begging his parents to send him more Pervitin. Its consumption came to be seen as entirely normal.

Not surprisingly, the military advantages of Pervitin soon became apparent. Professor Dr. Otto F. Ranke, the director of the Research Institute of Defense Physiology, believed that it was the solution to an army’s most critical weakness—fatigue. He began to carry out comparative trials, using Pervitin, Benzedrine, caffeine, and placebos on four separate groups of soldiers performing a range of tasks, both physical and mental. Those given Pervitin increased their output and stamina much more than the other groups, but they made far more mistakes in tests requiring calculation or other intellectual activities. Ranke was not dismayed by this. As far as he was concerned, the most important effect of drugs was the artificially stimulated ability to keep going when enemy troops had collapsed from exhaustion. Ranke was aware of side effects such as sleeplessness and protracted exhaustion afterward, but enthusiasm for the drug spread from the doctors and others who had been involved in the trials.

During the invasion of Poland in September 1939, medical officers reported back enthusiastically to Ranke on the effects of the Pervitin distributed in their units:

Everyone fresh and cheerful, excellent discipline. Slight euphoria and increased thirst for action. Mental encouragement, very stimulated. No accidents. Long-lasting effect. After taking four tablets, double vision and seeing colors.

Double vision was hardly a beneficial effect for tank gunners, and yet panzer divisions were uniformly excited by the drug’s possibilities. Apart from banishing hunger and stimulating physical and mental activity, it also seemed to reduce inhibitions and fear.

Back in the Reich, however, the minister of health, Leo Conti, became concerned at the way the entire nation seemed to be addicted. Conti made Pervitin available only by prescription starting in November 1939. But the Wehrmacht high command saw no disadvantages, especially for the strategy being developed for the invasion of France and the Low Countries in May 1940. This plan consisted of an attack on neutral Holland and Belgium to force the French and British to come to their aid, followed immediately by a deep panzer penetration from the Ardennes in Belgium all the way across northern France to the Somme estuary, thus cutting off the British and French formations. Even Hitler was shaken by its daring, but as the army’s commander in chief recognized, the Germans would have a much higher chance of success if their leading troops could keep going without stopping to rest. Ohler found that the Temmler factory went into overdrive, manufacturing 833,000 pills a day to meet the Wehrmacht requirement for 35 million pills.

General Heinz Guderian told his troops before the attack: “I demand that you do not sleep for at least three days and nights, if that is required.” The speed of the German advance through the Ardennes to the Meuse River took the French army completely by surprise. General Ewald von Kleist’s panzer group was across the river before French divisions reached their positions. The arrogance of victory was of course heightened by the effects of Pervitin. Colonel Charles de Gaulle was enraged when he heard of the enemy panzer crews refusing to accept surrender from French units. They told surrendering French soldiers to throw away their weapons and march to the rear. The German panzer divisions, having outstripped their own supply columns, simply filled up at roadside gas stations or abandoned military barracks.

These panzer troops appeared to the British and French alike to be armored supermen, even though German ground forces were in fact far less mechanized than their own. It was the Wehrmacht’s speed and ruthlessness that defeated the French and British armies, which still acted as if it were 1918. They had no idea how the Germans managed to advance day and night without sleep. The official French report on their defeat described it as a “phénomène d’hallucination collective.”

Ohler is on less certain ground when he ascribes Hitler’s famous order to halt the tanks short of Dunkirk to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s morphine dependency. It is certainly true that Hitler was persuaded by Göring that the Luftwaffe could deal with the British forces cornered there, but there were practical reasons for this advice. The terrain in front of the German forces was criss-crossed with waterways and the ground was too soft for tanks. Their crews were exhausted and the vehicles themselves were desperately in need of maintenance before they were turned around to attack the French and British defensive positions south of the Somme River.

Morell, meanwhile, had ambitious plans. He created a preparation called “Vitamultin” and had it manufactured by a company in which he owned half the shares. The plan was to persuade Hitler to take it regularly as his own personal brand, and then repackage it under different names for consumption by individuals and organizations, from the German Labor Front to the SS. The head of Luftwaffe medical services refused to accept this plan and Morell had him fired. His position as the Führer’s physician was by then unassailable. But Ranke, as head of the military research initiative, rejected Vitamultin for the army and stood firm, although with the approach of the invasion of the Soviet Union he did nothing to reduce the use of Pervitin.

Unlike the invasion of France, Germany’s Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union could not be won with the Wehrmacht’s secret chemical weapon. The distances were simply too vast. One of the three army groups alone consumed 30 million tablets of Pervitin in the first few months of the campaign, yet it failed to produce a decisive result.

Hitler, now based in his East Prussian bunker headquarters, needed constant attention. From August 1941 to April 1945, Morell was with Hitler 885 out of 1,349 days. He kept very detailed—although chaotic—notes, out of fear that if Hitler died, the Gestapo would punish him particularly. In a desperate attempt to cure “Patient A” of a sudden illness in August 1941, Morell tried everything he could, starting with Vitamultin, as well as the usual stimulants. Soon afterward he began injecting Hitler with other substances, including by-products of uterine blood, the sexual hormone Testoviron, and even Orchikrin, a derivative of bulls’ testicles. The stress of setbacks on the eastern front made Hitler demand more and more of Morell’s drug cocktails.

Morell’s notebooks provided Ohler with a terrifying list of eighty-nine remedies, of which seventeen were psychoactive, consciousness-changing drugs. Day after day, Morell noted “injection as always,” without specifying its contents. What Ohler calls this “polytoxicomania” certainly contributed to Hitler’s fantasies about maps showing German progress as he lost all touch with the reality on the battlefield.

In mid-1943, after the Battle of Kursk, a major disaster for the Germans on the eastern front, and the collapse of Italy, Morell, fearing that he could not cope with Hitler’s deteriorating condition, resorted to an even stronger drug, Eukodal, a synthesized form of opium. But the Wehrmacht’s retreats and defeats, especially in North Africa, meant that Germany could no longer obtain supplies of raw opium. Morell, by now a very rich man with all the different factories and pharmaceutical enterprises he had been acquiring through the shameless exploitation of his position, combed occupied Europe to obtain the supplies he needed to keep the Führer happy.

In the attempt to assassinate Hitler at his East Prussian headquarters on July 20, 1944, his eardrums were perforated by the bomb explosion. He was treated by the specialist Dr. Erwin Giesing with cocaine on fifty occasions in seventy-five days. Hitler loved the effect of cocaine and badgered Giesing for more, but in October, Morell put him back onto Eukodal. Not surprisingly, a doctor’s war developed between the two men. Giesing accused Morell of poisoning the Führer, but he chose the wrong drug to attack, and Hitler refused to abandon his personal physician. All of this coincided with planning the attack that, in Hitler’s fantasy, would be turning point in the war: the Ardennes offensive. (In the month before the start of the campaign, Ohler writes, high doses of cocaine and Pervitin had been administered to a unit of prisoners at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, who for four days were sent on long forced marches “to establish the tolerability and effectiveness” of the drugs in great volume.)

Whether Hitler’s trembling hands were the result of Parkinson’s or the direct consequence of excessive drug use is impossible to say, but the deterioration in his appearance toward the end of 1944 shocked many who had not seen him since earlier in the year. By February 1945, supplies of Eukodal had begun to run out, and Hitler was soon suffering withdrawal symptoms as the end approached in the Führerbunker in Berlin. Albert Speer complained that history always emphasized terminal events, and thus overlooked the early achievements of Nazism. He could not have been more wrong. The ghastly and grotesque end of the Third Reich revealed its true basis of lies, hypocrisy, futile slaughter, and pointless cruelty.

It is not hard to see why Hans Mommsen was fascinated by Ohler’s research. He was the leader of the functionalist school, which believed in the chaotic nature of the Nazi regime and that Hitler was a “weak dictator.”* Nothing seems to demonstrate this better than Hitler’s drug addiction. Ohler’s book may well irritate some historians; he makes flippant remarks and uses chapter titles such as “Sieg High!” and “High Hitler.” But as Ian Kershaw, the great biographer of Hitler, has recognized, he has written “a serious piece of scholarship,” and one that is very well researched.

  1. *

    Ian Kershaw, “Hans Mommsen Obituary,” The Guardian, November 12, 2015. 

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Am I the Apple?

René Magritte: La carte postale (The Postcard), 1960
C. Herscovici/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/Art ResourceRené Magritte: La carte postale (The Postcard), 1960

How is it that we experience the world? How is it possible that the environment we live in, the objects we use and see, touch and taste, hear and smell, are both patently out there and simultaneously, it seems, in our heads? After four long conversations, considering the positions of philosophers and neuroscientists, those who assume that experience is an amalgam of neuron-generated representations in the brain and those who have looked for it in our interaction with the environment, Riccardo Manzotti and I are no nearer to establishing what consciousness is or where it resides. Today, then, we have set ourselves a simple task: to review all the ways philosophers have supposed a subject might relate to and become conscious of an object, setting aside once and for all those hypotheses that have clearly failed and asking, is there one approach which has not yet been given due attention? Riccardo believes there is.

—Tim Parks


Tim Parks: Riccardo, to talk us through this I know you want to propose something you call “the metaphysical switchboard.” Can you explain?

Riccardo Manzotti: Well, at the beginning of any discussion of consciousness there are some fundamental premises to be established that will constrain everything that follows. The metaphysical switchboard will help us get a grasp of those premises and the various directions they lead in.

Parks: I’m all ears.

Manzotti: So, imagine an old-fashioned switchboard with just two toggle switches. Each time you flick one of those switches you open a path that sends the debate in a different direction. Let’s say the first switch determines whether or not subject and object are to be considered separate, the second whether or not the subject is to be supposed physical.

Parks: This should be fairly straightforward: two toggle switches means just four available pathways. Let’s start by turning our first switch in favor of a separation of subject and object, since I’m sure most of us think of our minds as separate from the objects they perceive.

Manzotti: Fine. With the first switch on separate, we now have to set the second. If we set it for a subject that is non-physical then we get Descartes’s immaterial, or spiritual subject. That is, in the Cartesian model, we have immaterial souls, or just selves if you like, separate from the physical objects we experience and even, ultimately, from our bodies. It’s a solution that has occupied a huge space in modern history and that many religions endorse, but scientifically it’s a non-starter, since it’s based on the notion that the subject cannot be an object of scientific enquiry. So we can be forgiven, I think, for paying it no further attention.

Parks: No souls flying up to heaven, freed from their material prison.

Manzotti: Alas no. All the same, assuming we now flick that second switch to physical, things hardly get much easier. This is the territory, I should say, of modern science from Galileo right up to today’s neuroscientists. They left the first switch set to keep subject and object separate, but placed the subject in a predetermined place in the physical world, namely the brain, and hence made consciousness a neural process that is inside the head and separate from the physical world it perceives. Unfortunately, since all available empirical findings have shown that the properties of neurons are nothing like the properties of our minds or our experience, this shows every sign of being another dead end.

Parks: We discussed the brain-based solution in our first dialogues. But did setting our second switch to physical mean we had to place the subject in the brain? Couldn’t it have been the whole body?

Manzotti: Some philosophers and scientists—Francisco Varela, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Rodney Brooks, for example—take the whole body and what the body does to be the basis for the mind, but, at least as far as regards consciousness, they’ve had no more success than those focusing on the brain. You can look at muscles, blood cells, and nerve endings for as long as you like without finding anything that remotely resembles consciousness.

Parks: Time to go back to the first switch then and set it for a subject and object that are not separate. Is this, perhaps, what the enactivists we discussed in our last conversation are doing? Is this what they mean when they suggest that consciousness is not contained inside the head but constituted by our interaction with the world?

Manzotti: The enactivists toy with the first switch, without actually turning it all the way to not separate. They see that consciousness can’t be reduced to a property of the goings-on in the brain, so they start to look outside. But instead of considering the external object as such, they look at our dealings with the object, our handling the object, our manipulating the object, believing that consciousness is a product of the actions we perform. At the end of the day, though, the object remains doggedly separate from the subject who experiences it. And unfortunately, as we said last time, actions, whether they be eye movements, or touch, or chewing, are no better than neural firings when it comes to accounting for experience. How can my actions explain why the sky is blue or sugar sweet?

Parks: Okay, let’s stop playing with that switch and set it determinedly on subject and object not separate. As for the second switch, let’s again start with a subject that is not physical, since I suspect you are going to give that position short shrift.

Manzotti: Yes. This is the territory of Bishop Berkeley and Leibniz in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Crudely speaking, they proposed that subject and object become identical, the same thing, but both in a completely non-physical world.

Parks: What exactly do we mean by identical? How can different things be the same thing?

Manzotti: Well, identical the same way that Bruce Wayne and Batman are identical. Bruce Wayne is Batman. For a true idealist—that’s what this approach is called—the object of perception is nothing but a modification of a part of the subject who experiences mental representations or ideas, which are not physical. The world is all idea. Actually, you could say that this position has recently been revived by techno-enthusiasts like Elon Musk who wonder whether we live in a giant computer simulation concocting the illusory objects we erroneously imagine reality is made of. These are intriguing ideas, but again they are scientific non-starters since they depend on a non-substance which no one can track down or verify. You can’t even begin to prove them wrong.

Parks: In our last conversation you reminded us of Sherlock telling Watson, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” And I guess we’ve reached that point: three of our four pathways have been dismissed, so let’s turn to the last: first switch on not separate, second on physical; that is, subject and object are identical—the same thing—and physical. Improbable indeed! Crazy, most people would say. The only philosopher I can think of who has given a nod in this direction is Aristotle, when he says that the mind “is in a way all existing things.” But I suspect most of our readers will take that to be esoteric rambling from thousands of years ago.

Manzotti: Let’s forget the voices from the past, wipe the slate clean, and take a really ordinary situation: a person looking at some everyday object, let’s say, an apple. That’s the example I always use. So, we have a body—including a brain of course!—and an apple. Nothing esoteric or improbable there. The body, let’s say your body, on the left, the apple on the right, thin air in the middle. What could be simpler? But there’s still one piece of the jigsaw we haven’t placed yet—your experience, or simply the experience of the apple. Where is that? And what is that? We can’t account for it. So let’s consider the chief suspects, one by one. Is it the activity of your neurons?

Parks: We’ve already decided against that. There is nothing applish in the gooey brain, and anyway, we don’t experience neurons, we experience the apple.

Manzotti: So is your experience some movement you’re making in relation to the apple? Some action? Is it your movements that conjure a sort of applishness?

Parks: Again, we’ve already dismissed this, haven’t we? Movements, actions, don’t seem to have anything in themselves that we can identify with the apple we see. I can’t imagine a robot repeating exactly my movements would have the same experiences I have. I think we can let this go.

Manzotti: Okay, so could our experience of the apple be an amalgam of everything going on between subject and object? Neural processes, retina, optic nerve, molecules of apple, atoms in the molecules, electrons in the atoms, everything?

Parks: You’re trying to treat me like a performing dog, Riccardo. You want me to say no, obviously. Instead I’m tempted to say yes. Why can’t consciousness be the whole process?

Manzotti: Because just as we don’t experience neurons, so we don’t experience retinas or photons either. Obviously they’re necessary to the experience of seeing an apple, all the elements of the process are necessary, but they’re not it, are they?

Parks. Not convinced. Just because we don’t experience the constituent parts of a system, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t together what we are experiencing.

Riccardo Manzotti's metaphysical switchboard
Riccardo Manzotti’s metaphysical switchboard

Manzotti: The constituent parts are causally necessary the way a pot is necessary to boil pasta, but the pot is not the cooked spaghetti. Nor is the heat source, nor is the water. In the case of the apple, if you list the properties of the process as a whole, they just don’t match the properties of the experience. Photons are not applish. The rhodopsin your retina secretes is not applish. And so on.

Parks: I need to think more about this. All I’m going to concede for the moment is that when I experience the apple, I’m not aware of experiencing the other various elements of the process.

Manzotti: Okay. By all means think it over. But meantime what if someone said that the experience was the apple itself? After all, the apple is definitely the most applish thing around. And the only thing that has the properties of an experience of an apple. It’s round, it’s red, it’s shiny. So why can’t the subject, consciousness (but not the body, notice), be identical with the apple, out there where the apple is? Consciousness is not about the apple, consciousness is the apple.

Parks: Of course, I’ve heard you come up with this argument before, Riccardo. So I’m not going to pretend to be amazed. But it’s still extremely difficult for me, and for most of our readers it will seem quite mad. Essentially, you’re proposing that my experience of the apple, or any “external object” is outside my body—out there where the object is.

Manzotti: Exactly. But did you ever really imagine the apple was in your brain? That it somehow got smuggled in among your neurons? Of course you didn’t. You always thought the apple was out there. And so it is. And with it your experience.

Parks: Again—because I still find this a huge conceptual struggle—you’re saying that my experience is literally the object. So my consciousness, the me, the subject, or at least the part of me that is the experience of the apple, is identical with it.

Manzotti: Right. Experience is physical—what else could it be?—only it is not the physical object that it is usually assumed to be, our neurons, but another physical object, the apple.

Parks: But in that case, what would be the relation between my body, my brain, and this apple experience that is halfway across the room? And what is the apple when it’s not identical with my experience? Does it disappear with Bishop Berkeley’s trees in the woods when no one’s looking at them?

Manzotti: One objection at a time! But first, please note that there is nothing here that contradicts the findings of neuroscience or, indeed, physics. All that we know about what goes on in the brain, all the correlations between neural activity and specific kinds of perception, all the physics of photons and sound waves, all the chemistry of retina and taste buds, all the mechanics of the ear and the nose, remain absolutely in place. Everything is physical, verifiable. We just have this one, admittedly enormous, conceptual shift: instead of supposing that the senses receive “input” and somehow create a second, inner mental world reflecting the outer world, we say that your experience is in the outer world: it is not separate from the physical object you perceive, it is the object.

Parks: I can see it all seems extremely simple to you, and that you’ve somehow convinced yourself it’s true. But I assure you that for most people this idea will seem bizarre and almost mystical. Please answer my previous question, what is the relation between my body and the distant object, which is also, you say, my experience?

Manzotti: Francis Bacon remarked that “Opportunity makes a thief.” Likewise, we could say that your body offers the opportunity or physical conditions—eyes, optic nerve, neurons and so on—that allow the world to take place as the object we experience.

Parks: Opportunity makes the object.

Manzotti: If you like. Of course, the apple conjured up by this opportunity that is your body, the apple you perceive—is not an absolute apple, it’s not the apple that Galileo supposed was altogether measurable and fixed, nor Kant’s noumenon, the apple in itself that can never be known; it’s not an apple in an X-ray machine, nor a slice of apple under an atomic microscope. The apple that you experience is simply a selection, or subset, of the many other things going on out there in the world; it is the selection that your body—your brain plus your sense organs—allow for.

Park: A relative apple.

Mazotti: Right. It’s relative to your body, though of course, since most humans have similar perceptive equipment we will tend to agree on shape and color, up to a point, depending on our eyesight, our position, and so on. Other animals or other devices will allow for other selections and hence other object experiences, which are equally relative and equally real. Your apple is not a snail’s apple. Or a bat’s. Your apple is made of those and only those physical features that cause effects thanks to your sensory organs, your particular body. Which is not to say that other properties do not exist. They do. It’s just they’re not part of the object that you experience; to wit, one side of a shiny red round apple.

Parks: So I am the apple.

 Manzotti: Of course that sounds absurd, because you identify your conscious self, the subject, the I, with your body, and your body is clearly not the apple. But what if I were to say that the very idea of consciousness was invented to explain how you could experience an apple when there is no apple in your head. So we have to have this consciousness apple. However, if experience and apple are one and the same, there is no longer any need to talk of a consciousness separate from it. The apple is more than enough. 

Parks: You’re really going to say I am the apple….

Manzotti: You are a whole range of experiences, hundreds and hundreds of things going on simultaneously, of which the apple is one. That’s why when you close your eyes, the apple disappears. Eyes closed, your body no longer offers the conditions for the apple to have certain effects. Consequently the apple with its shape and colors is no longer part of your experience.

Parks: But I know it’s still there! I could reach out and touch the apple, eyes closed.

Manzotti: You could indeed! But it will not be the same apple as your visual apple. It will be a smooth solid rotundity. A blind man’s apple. And that apple too will be in the external world and not inside your hand. This ‘touch apple,’ if I can call it that, originates in the same external conditions, but a different set of physical features is now selected. Again the object is relative to the body, or the parts of the body, involved in the experience. It’s like the difference between feeling for something inside a drawer as compared to looking inside a drawer. Different experiences, different objects. None of them in your head, but out there, where you experience them.

Parks: So, what you’re claiming if I’m not mistaken is that for every experience there must be an external object which is identical with it. And frankly that is not going to be an easy sell. People will laugh you out of town. What about memories, they will say? My memory of the apple. What about dreams? What about hallucinations? And thoughts, words, cogitation, pain, heat, and cold. Where is the external object that corresponds to these aspects of experience? Your idea is dead in the water.

Manzotti: By all means, bring the objections on. I’m ready for them. All I ask is a little time and space. You can’t turn round an oil tanker on a dime. We’ll tackle these challenges, which are substantial and serious, in our next talk. But let me just say in closing that this is not simply philosophical speculation, but a concrete empirical hypothesis. It’s a risky hypothesis, I know, but didn’t Karl Popper define scientific hypotheses as inevitably risky, daring proposals open to being proved or disproved? 

Parks: Which you believe this is?

Manzotti: Eminently.

Parks: Ok. Next time, we’ll give you space to say your dime’s worth, but let me warn you that I’ll be wanting to know where exactly is the external object that corresponds to each of my experiences.


This is the fifth in a series of conversations on consciousness between Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks.

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‘Total Catastrophe of the Body’: A Russian Story

Vladimir Kara-Murza after his first poisoning, Washington, D.C., fall 2015
Carl Schreck (RFE/RL)Vladimir Kara-Murza after his first poisoning, Washington, D.C., fall 2015

On Thursday, February 2, the young Russian journalist and pro-democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza was at his in-laws’ apartment in Moscow when he suddenly felt ill. He appeared confused and disoriented. His parents-in-law rushed him into a taxi and to a hospital. By the time they arrived, Kara-Murza was experiencing organ failure. Fortunately, the doctor who admitted him was the same one who had treated Kara-Murza’s previous multiple-organ-failure episode, in May 2015. The doctor wasted no time starting treatment, beginning with dialysis.

Kara-Murza, who is thirty-five, is normally in good health. He is also a longtime opponent of the Putin regime. He divides his time between Washington, D.C., where his wife and three children live, and Moscow, where he works for a foundation started and funded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon and Kremlin critic who spent more than a decade in Russian prisons. Kara-Murza was a close friend of Boris Nemtsov, the leading opposition politician who was assassinated in front of the Kremlin in early 2015. Perhaps most important, Kara-Murza lobbied US politicians in 2012 to pass the Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the Treasury to institute sanctions against Russians implicated in gross human rights abuses. Several Russian officials have been added to the list every year since. Kara-Murza has been a vocal proponent of individual sanctions—so while most Russians have probably never heard of him, he has made a record number of enemies among the people who run the country.

After a week in critical condition, Kara-Murza has been improving. He remains hospitalized in Moscow, with a diagnosis of “acute intoxication.” Details of his condition are still emerging. I have been corresponding with his father, Vladimir Kara-Murza Sr., a longtime television and radio journalist who had spent the past decade working for what is left of Russia’s independent media. Vladimir Sr. complains about a morbid sense of déjà vu: this poisoning feels just like the last one—and like what happened to other Russian activists he knew.

* * *

It was May 26, 2015. The text message from Lev Trubkovich’s mother read, “Call me.” She repeated the request three or four times in quick succession. Lev, a freelance video producer in New York, dialed her as soon as he could, but now she was unreachable. He finally got hold of his stepfather, Vladimir Sr., in Moscow, on Skype. His stepfather was brief: “Vova,” he said—using the diminutive of Vladimir to refer to his son—“is in the hospital in critical condition. Read the wires.” On the wires, Lev found scores of nearly identical news items. They were not, as he learned later, exactly accurate, but they reflected one basic fact: his then-thirty-three-year-old stepbrother, Vladimir Jr., was in a coma.

Vladimir Sr. had been getting ready to leave the house to host his nightly current-affairs program on Radio Liberty when an old friend of his son’s messaged him on Facebook: “Volodya wasn’t feeling well, he’s come down with something, we called an ambulance and they took him to Hospital Number 23.” Nothing in this message made sense. Something was terribly wrong, and Vladimir Sr. was already getting into a cab driven by a man who took him to work nearly every night. It was a short drive from his apartment building to Hospital Number 23 but, of course, it was evening in Moscow, the height of rush hour, and Vladimir Sr. ran the final couple of hundred meters across a bridge, leaving the driver in traffic. The driver had motioned to him to stop fumbling in his pockets: he could pay later. He ran into the hospital to find his son being wheeled down the corridor.

Vladimir Jr.’s face was white. This was not paleness: it was a complete absence of color. An hour or so earlier he had collapsed and vomited at the same time—this was when his friend had called an ambulance. Now a doctor was saying to his father, “His diastolic blood pressure is zero.” Vladimir Sr. struggled to understand. The diastolic is the lower number in a blood-pressure reading.

“How long can a person live with this kind of pressure?” he asked.

“A person cannot live with this kind of pressure,” the doctor answered. “Do you know a cardiologist?”

This was perhaps the first thing anyone had said that made sense. In Soviet society, in which Vladimir Sr. had come of age, and in Russian society, in which he had raised his son, one’s network of friends was the measure of one’s well-being, and in times of crisis, of one’s chances for survival. Did Vladimir Sr. know a cardiologist? He called a contemporary artist in Berlin, who connected him with Moscow’s top heart surgeon, who also happened to be a top art collector. Vladimir Sr.’s media name helped. The surgeon arranged for an immediate transfer to the best and biggest heart-medicine center, a mercifully short distance from Hospital Number 23. The words “heart transplant” were said. Vladimir Sr. was told they would operate in the morning. His son would be in the intensive-care unit until then, and he should go home. His own mother called, demanding to know why he had not been on the air that evening. “Vova has come down with something,” he said.

Vladimir Kara-Murza and his father, Vladimir Kara-Murza Sr., Moscow, 2007
Vladimir Kara-Murza and his father, Vladimir Kara-Murza Sr., Moscow, 2007

By the time Vladimir Sr. returned at six the next morning, the plan had changed. The famous surgeon—the art collector—had seen his son and said there was nothing wrong with his heart. Vladimir Jr. had been transferred again, just across the courtyard, to the intensive-care unit of a general hospital. The chief there diagnosed “acute poisoning.” He said Vladimir Jr. needed dialysis but none of the dialysis machines were available. Vladimir Sr. cajoled, and he may have begged, and fortunately the medical staff kept recognizing him from his television show, so in a few hours Vladimir Jr. was hooked up to an artificial kidney.

Now Vladimir Sr. asked the chief how the poisoning could have happened.

“I see no evidence of foul play,” the doctor said.

“What do you mean, you see no evidence of foul play? He was perfectly healthy yesterday morning!” Somehow it seemed important to Vladimir Sr. to stress that his son had been more than simply healthy—he had been perfectly healthy. His only ailment had ever been an allergy to the poplar-tree seeds that cover Moscow that time of year.

Then Vladimir Jr.’s internal organs failed. Just when his blood pressure had been restored, while on the dialysis machine, his heart, lungs, stomach, liver, spleen, and pancreas stopped functioning. Together with the kidneys, that made seven different internal organs that now had to be replaced with machines, which breathed for Vladimir Jr. and pumped and filtered his blood for him. He received his sustenance intravenously and excreted waste through tubes. When Vladimir Sr. was allowed to see his son on May 30—four days after he had last glimpsed him on a gurney in the hallway of Hospital Number 23—he counted forty different tubes and wires protruding from his head and torso. The doctors described it as “a total catastrophe of the body.”

* * *

In September 2004, more than ten years earlier, something similar had happened to someone Vladimir Sr. knew. Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist with the muckraking weekly Novaya Gazeta, was on a plane, on her way to the town of Beslan to report on the school siege and massacre, which was then unfolding. She collapsed during the flight, and by the time she was brought to a hospital in the city of Rostov, she had slipped into a coma. Within hours she had suffered multiple organ failure. The toxin that had caused her body’s “total catastrophe” was never identified, perhaps in part because the hospital in Rostov had discarded all the tests that were taken. As Politkovskaya wrote at the time, the samples had been destroyed “on orders from on high.” Just over two years later, in October 2006, Politkovskaya was shot and killed in Moscow, laying to rest any doubt that her strange intoxication had been an assassination attempt.

Vladimir Sr. could not believe that someone wanted his son dead. He had considered Politkovskaya a fighter, a formidable opponent of the regime, while his son was a naive romantic, a kid with a good head and misplaced political ambitions. (Shortly after graduating from Cambridge University with top honors, the younger Kara-Murza, still in his twenties, had run, and lost, for a seat in the Russian parliament.) He posed no real threat to anyone. Vladimir Sr. grew convinced that it had been an accident of sorts—that his son had ingested poison intended for someone else, probably by picking up the teacup of one of his usual dinner companions, who tended to be better-known anti-Putin activists or older, more experienced politicians, or both.

One of these politicians was Nemtsov, who was murdered exactly three months before Vladimir Jr. slipped into a coma. Nemtsov had been a fixture of Russian politics ever since Russian politics came into existence, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. He’d been a popular young governor in the early 1990s, a poster boy for post-Communist reforms, then a cabinet member in Boris Yeltsin’s administration—and rumored to be his hand-picked successor. Then, after Yeltsin picked someone entirely different, Nemtsov continued to organize, protest, and even run in what remained of elections. Vladimir Jr. had been by his side some of that time. When Nemtsov was shot, late one night on a bridge near the Kremlin, Vladimir Jr. was utterly devastated.

Anna Politkovskaya, circa 2005
ITAR-TASS Agency/Novaya GazetaAnna Politkovskaya, circa 2005

For Vladimir Sr., the memory of Nemtsov’s murder made his own son’s poisoning seem all the more incredible. Nemtsov had been a household name in Russia; to the extent that people knew who Vladimir Jr. was, it was mainly as his father’s son. The more Vladimir Sr. thought about it, the more certain he grew that his son had drunk poison from someone else’s cup.

Vladimir Sr. did not say any of this publicly. What he said to the scores of journalists who started calling once the news about his son broke was this: “I don’t see any sign of foul play. We are putting our trust in the doctors at City Hospital Number One.” His stepson Lev, who was doing as he had been told and reading the wires, thought, “He sounds like someone addressing hostage-takers.”

He was. Vladimir Jr. was tethered to a roomful of machines that belonged to a Russian state hospital. Khodorkovsky, his employer, had wanted to pay to have him evacuated for treatment abroad, but an Israeli doctor who came to organize the airlift deemed it impossible: he said that he saw no way to ensure that the patient would survive the drive to the Moscow airport.

Vladimir Sr. continued to do what Russians do in times of trouble: he made calls to people he imagined might be able to help. One influential friend, a former Yeltsin official who now held a comfortable post in the Putin administration, said, “The chief has ordered him cured.” By “the chief” he could have meant only Putin himself. An order like that, communicated through the health-care hierarchy from the Kremlin, meant that the doctors must break with the usual Russian hospital culture of fatalistic neglect and do more than they knew they could to save their patient. Putin’s will now held Vladimir Jr.’s only hope for survival.

When Vladimir Sr. was not making phone calls, he was receiving them: a pro-Kremlin tabloid famous for rewarding informants in hospitals had written about Vladimir Jr.’s hospitalization within twenty-four hours of the original ambulance call. Now everyone wanted to know what had happened and whom the father blamed. A senior doctor at the hospital told Vladimir Sr. precisely what to say—the trusting words that Lev had read on the wires. The doctor then had Vladimir Jr. moved to a more comfortable room, where his parents could visit him, and even placed a guard at the door. Vladimir Sr. understood that this was his reward for transmitting the correct message.

The message was blessedly easy to spread. Not only did reporters unquestioningly reproduce the statement dictated to Vladimir Sr. by the doctor but a self-policing mechanism instantly kicked in: journalists and bloggers began shaming those who speculated that Vladimir Jr. may have been intentionally poisoned (I was one object of such shaming). Without being explicitly asked to do so, and without phrasing their request directly, a small, spontaneous army began virtually chanting, Keep quiet so he may live.

This, too, was a hostage situation, albeit not a literal one: it was what a great Soviet sociologist, Yuri Levada, had once termed “collective hostage-taking,” which he described as one of “the most potent instruments of coercion and intimidation used by the Soviet state.” This institution derived from a centuries-old tradition of krugovaia poruka—literally, “circular bail.” If, for example, a village resident failed to pay his taxes, the property of any of his neighbors—and any number of his neighbors—could be seized and sold at auction. The threat transformed all members of a given community into enforcers, but not in accordance with codified law—they had to devise their own means of ensuring compliance. It was a nearly fail-safe mechanism of coercion. In the decades after the Great Terror, when most Soviet citizens did not face an immediate threat of imprisonment, the overwhelming majority of the population was kept passive by the understanding that any action could endanger a larger group. For example, when my parents decided to emigrate in the late 1970s, my mother quit her editorial job, which she loved (and the income from which was essential for our family’s livelihood), months before applying for an exit visa, to prevent any negative consequences for her colleagues—for having harbored a traitor to the Soviet cause.

In the case of Vladimir Jr., the situation seemed perfectly clear-cut: in a matter of life and death, there could be no justification for making the otherwise eminently reasonable suggestion that this man, like at least half a dozen others before him, had been poisoned in retaliation for his opposition to Putin. Even Khodorkovsky, who had spent ten years in prison for opposing Putin, refrained from public statements on the matter, surrendering to the resurrection of one of the most important mechanisms of the Soviet totalitarian state.

Vladimir Sr. settled into a routine. In the mornings, he would go to the hospital to see if his son was still alive: this sort of information was not given over the phone. The hardest part was the elevator ride down to intensive care—it was, evidently for pragmatic reasons, located in the basement, next to the morgue. (He invariably shared the lift with orderlies carrying body bags, on their way down to Intensive Care to collect those who had not survived the night. Or at least it seemed that they always rode with him.) After seeing that his son was still alive, Vladimir Sr. would go to the morning meeting of the radio station Echo Moskvy, on which he also had a show. Then he would return to the hospital and stay until it was time to host his show on Radio Liberty.

Vladimir Jr. started regaining consciousness after a week. Speech came later. “Papa, let’s look out the window,” he said. This was the Vladimirs’ stock phrase, used for decades to assert familiarity and a shared point of view—and now employed to show that Vladimir Jr. knew who he was. He had no idea what had happened to him.

It was a month before he could be transported by ambulance to board a plane to fly to Washington, D.C., where he entered a rehabilitation facility. He had lain in bed for so long that the hair on the back of his head had rubbed off—“like when he was a baby,” thought his father—and the muscles of his arms and legs had atrophied. He had a blister on his heel from hitting it on the edge of the mattress repeatedly, from the pain.

By mid-September, Vladimir Jr. had recovered sufficiently to walk, using a cane, to receive an award posthumously given to Nemtsov from Senator John McCain. On September 26, four months after the poisoning, he wrote to his father, “Why wasn’t there a criminal probe?”

Vladimir Sr. could explain. A local Moscow detective had contacted him soon after his son was hospitalized, to ask if he wanted to file a complaint. Vladimir Sr. remembered that after Nemtsov was killed, the police confiscated the dead man’s computers and documents and sealed his apartment—all in the name of conducting a criminal investigation. He imagined his own computer and phone getting seized (they were already tapped, often to comical effect: the software used to collect data off his phone must have been misfiring, because messages and senders seemed to be crossed at random). Worse, he imagined his son being considered a material witness and being prevented from leaving the country if and when he recovered—being held hostage. He told the investigator that no probe was necessary; he even said that he would be willing to write a statement declining any help from the police.

Vladimir Kara-Murza and slain Russian politician Boris Nemtsov, at an opposition rally, Moscow, March 5, 2012
Vladimir Kara-Murza and slain Russian politician Boris Nemtsov at an opposition rally, Moscow, March 5, 2012

But as Vladimir Jr. was being gradually unhooked from the machines of the Russian state in City Hospital Number One, his father began asking questions. The doctors at the hospital said that Vladimir Jr. had overdosed on antidepressants, which had also interacted with anti-allergy nose drops—it was poplar-tree season—causing a catastrophic reaction; American doctors whom he contacted separately a short time later called the interaction hypothesis absurd. As for the antidepressants, Vladimir Sr. dutifully repeated this explanation to the Russian journalists who asked, but privately he and his ex-wife, Vladimir Jr.’s mother, went to their son’s apartment to check his prescription and count the pills. As they expected, they found that their son had been taking his medication precisely according to instructions: there had been no overdose. The medication itself was Prozac, which may be one of the least likely pharmaceuticals ever to cause kidney failure, in any dose.

Vladimir Sr. asked for blood or tissue samples that had been taken before his son’s body was cleansed of toxins by dialysis. The doctors said that they needed to protect the patient’s privacy and could not release the samples. At that point the patient himself was still in a coma—and the doctors naturally perceived no violation of privacy in having his father, who had a power of attorney, give permission for intubation, dialysis, life support, and the like. By the time Vladimir Jr. regained consciousness, the samples had somehow been discarded.

Vladimir Sr. had better luck at Hospital Number 23, which had drawn blood when his son was first brought there by ambulance. The doctors there gave the father a compact disc with the test results, and Vladimir Sr. sent it to Israel to be analyzed. The Israeli doctors saw nothing unusual. Of course, this was only the results. The blood itself had been discarded.

Early on, Khodorkovsky had called asking that hair and nail cuttings be taken for analysis. He must have learned this technique from one of his own lawyers, Karina Moskalenko, who had repeatedly taken Khodorkovsky’s fingernail cuttings while he was in prison—in order to document that he was receiving psychoactive drugs with his prison food, without his consent. (Moskalenko had some personal experience with poisoning, too: in 2008 her husband, two children, and, especially, Moskalenko herself, had felt ill—the culprit was soon identified as mercury in the car she had been driving around Strasbourg, where she worked on cases before the European Court for Human Rights; French investigators found no foul play, but Moskalenko remained skeptical of their conclusion.). The nail and hair clippings, along with the t-shirt with vomit residue from May 26, were sent to laboratories outside of Russia, and these found nothing of note. One of Khodorkovsky’s other staff members, a thirty-year-old blonde named Maria Baronova who ran a legal-assistance program for political prisoners, spent hours explaining to her colleagues that looking for the toxin was worse than looking for a needle in a haystack: with a needle, you at least know what it looks like. With the toxin, there was no hypothesis as to what it might be, only the vague—and unfounded—hope that it had gotten into such far reaches as the nails and hair in sufficient amounts to be noticed. Baronova had been a chemist in her former life, and she had never imagined that her old profession would become relevant to her new, political line of work.

On September 7, 2015, Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. turned thirty-four. His father had been waiting for this day: something had made him believe that the milestone meant that the threat to his son’s life had been vanquished. The following day, Vladimir Sr. made the rounds of the doctors who had treated his son, delivering a bouquet of flowers to each. This, of course, included the doctor who had instructed him what to tell the journalists who asked about foul play.

It took Vladimir Jr. about a year to regain full use of his arms and legs. In the summer of 2016 he ran for a seat in the Russian parliament—and lost. He made a film about Boris Nemtsov. On February 2 of this year, he screened the film in the city of Tver, a couple of hours’ drive from Moscow, and then went to his in-laws’ apartment in Moscow, where he fell ill.

Maintaining one’s connections to good doctors in proper working order is a useful old Soviet habit. While the in-laws were getting Vladimir Jr. into a taxi, his father dialed the doctor who had treated him the last time. The doctor said that he had transferred from Hospital Number One to Hospital Number Seven—and the cab changed course and went directly to Hospital Number Seven.

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‘Total Catastrophe of the Body’: A Russian Story

Vladimir Kara-Murza after his first poisoning, Washington, D.C., fall 2015
Carl Schreck (RFE/RL)Vladimir Kara-Murza after his first poisoning, Washington, D.C., fall 2015

On Thursday, February 2, the young Russian journalist and pro-democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza was at his in-laws’ apartment in Moscow when he suddenly felt ill. He appeared confused and disoriented. His parents-in-law rushed him into a taxi and to a hospital. By the time they arrived, Kara-Murza was experiencing organ failure. Fortunately, the doctor who admitted him was the same one who had treated Kara-Murza’s previous multiple-organ-failure episode, in May 2015. The doctor wasted no time starting treatment, beginning with dialysis.

Kara-Murza, who is thirty-five, is normally in good health. He is also a longtime opponent of the Putin regime. He divides his time between Washington, D.C., where his wife and three children live, and Moscow, where he works for a foundation started and funded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon and Kremlin critic who spent more than a decade in Russian prisons. Kara-Murza was a close friend of Boris Nemtsov, the leading opposition politician who was assassinated in front of the Kremlin in early 2015. Perhaps most important, Kara-Murza lobbied US politicians in 2012 to pass the Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the Treasury to institute sanctions against Russians implicated in gross human rights abuses. Several Russian officials have been added to the list every year since. Kara-Murza has been a vocal proponent of individual sanctions—so while most Russians have probably never heard of him, he has made a record number of enemies among the people who run the country.

After a week in critical condition, Kara-Murza has been improving. He remains hospitalized in Moscow, with a diagnosis of “acute intoxication.” Details of his condition are still emerging. I have been corresponding with his father, Vladimir Kara-Murza Sr., a longtime television and radio journalist who had spent the past decade working for what is left of Russia’s independent media. Vladimir Sr. complains about a morbid sense of déjà vu: this poisoning feels just like the last one—and like what happened to other Russian activists he knew.

* * *

It was May 26, 2015. The text message from Lev Trubkovich’s mother read, “Call me.” She repeated the request three or four times in quick succession. Lev, a freelance video producer in New York, dialed her as soon as he could, but now she was unreachable. He finally got hold of his stepfather, Vladimir Sr., in Moscow, on Skype. His stepfather was brief: “Vova,” he said—using the diminutive of Vladimir to refer to his son—“is in the hospital in critical condition. Read the wires.” On the wires, Lev found scores of nearly identical news items. They were not, as he learned later, exactly accurate, but they reflected one basic fact: his then-thirty-three-year-old stepbrother, Vladimir Jr., was in a coma.

Vladimir Sr. had been getting ready to leave the house to host his nightly current-affairs program on Radio Liberty when an old friend of his son’s messaged him on Facebook: “Volodya wasn’t feeling well, he’s come down with something, we called an ambulance and they took him to Hospital Number 23.” Nothing in this message made sense. Something was terribly wrong, and Vladimir Sr. was already getting into a cab driven by a man who took him to work nearly every night. It was a short drive from his apartment building to Hospital Number 23 but, of course, it was evening in Moscow, the height of rush hour, and Vladimir Sr. ran the final couple of hundred meters across a bridge, leaving the driver in traffic. The driver had motioned to him to stop fumbling in his pockets: he could pay later. He ran into the hospital to find his son being wheeled down the corridor.

Vladimir Jr.’s face was white. This was not paleness: it was a complete absence of color. An hour or so earlier he had collapsed and vomited at the same time—this was when his friend had called an ambulance. Now a doctor was saying to his father, “His diastolic blood pressure is zero.” Vladimir Sr. struggled to understand. The diastolic is the lower number in a blood-pressure reading.

“How long can a person live with this kind of pressure?” he asked.

“A person cannot live with this kind of pressure,” the doctor answered. “Do you know a cardiologist?”

This was perhaps the first thing anyone had said that made sense. In Soviet society, in which Vladimir Sr. had come of age, and in Russian society, in which he had raised his son, one’s network of friends was the measure of one’s well-being, and in times of crisis, of one’s chances for survival. Did Vladimir Sr. know a cardiologist? He called a contemporary artist in Berlin, who connected him with Moscow’s top heart surgeon, who also happened to be a top art collector. Vladimir Sr.’s media name helped. The surgeon arranged for an immediate transfer to the best and biggest heart-medicine center, a mercifully short distance from Hospital Number 23. The words “heart transplant” were said. Vladimir Sr. was told they would operate in the morning. His son would be in the intensive-care unit until then, and he should go home. His own mother called, demanding to know why he had not been on the air that evening. “Vova has come down with something,” he said.

Vladimir Kara-Murza and his father, Vladimir Kara-Murza Sr., Moscow, 2007
Vladimir Kara-Murza and his father, Vladimir Kara-Murza Sr., Moscow, 2007

By the time Vladimir Sr. returned at six the next morning, the plan had changed. The famous surgeon—the art collector—had seen his son and said there was nothing wrong with his heart. Vladimir Jr. had been transferred again, just across the courtyard, to the intensive-care unit of a general hospital. The chief there diagnosed “acute poisoning.” He said Vladimir Jr. needed dialysis but none of the dialysis machines were available. Vladimir Sr. cajoled, and he may have begged, and fortunately the medical staff kept recognizing him from his television show, so in a few hours Vladimir Jr. was hooked up to an artificial kidney.

Now Vladimir Sr. asked the chief how the poisoning could have happened.

“I see no evidence of foul play,” the doctor said.

“What do you mean, you see no evidence of foul play? He was perfectly healthy yesterday morning!” Somehow it seemed important to Vladimir Sr. to stress that his son had been more than simply healthy—he had been perfectly healthy. His only ailment had ever been an allergy to the poplar-tree seeds that cover Moscow that time of year.

Then Vladimir Jr.’s internal organs failed. Just when his blood pressure had been restored, while on the dialysis machine, his heart, lungs, stomach, liver, spleen, and pancreas stopped functioning. Together with the kidneys, that made seven different internal organs that now had to be replaced with machines, which breathed for Vladimir Jr. and pumped and filtered his blood for him. He received his sustenance intravenously and excreted waste through tubes. When Vladimir Sr. was allowed to see his son on May 30—four days after he had last glimpsed him on a gurney in the hallway of Hospital Number 23—he counted forty different tubes and wires protruding from his head and torso. The doctors described it as “a total catastrophe of the body.”

* * *

In September 2004, more than ten years earlier, something similar had happened to someone Vladimir Sr. knew. Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist with the muckraking weekly Novaya Gazeta, was on a plane, on her way to the town of Beslan to report on the school siege and massacre, which was then unfolding. She collapsed during the flight, and by the time she was brought to a hospital in the city of Rostov, she had slipped into a coma. Within hours she had suffered multiple organ failure. The toxin that had caused her body’s “total catastrophe” was never identified, perhaps in part because the hospital in Rostov had discarded all the tests that were taken. As Politkovskaya wrote at the time, the samples had been destroyed “on orders from on high.” Just over two years later, in October 2006, Politkovskaya was shot and killed in Moscow, laying to rest any doubt that her strange intoxication had been an assassination attempt.

Vladimir Sr. could not believe that someone wanted his son dead. He had considered Politkovskaya a fighter, a formidable opponent of the regime, while his son was a naive romantic, a kid with a good head and misplaced political ambitions. (Shortly after graduating from Cambridge University with top honors, the younger Kara-Murza, still in his twenties, had run, and lost, for a seat in the Russian parliament.) He posed no real threat to anyone. Vladimir Sr. grew convinced that it had been an accident of sorts—that his son had ingested poison intended for someone else, probably by picking up the teacup of one of his usual dinner companions, who tended to be better-known anti-Putin activists or older, more experienced politicians, or both.

One of these politicians was Nemtsov, who was murdered exactly three months before Vladimir Jr. slipped into a coma. Nemtsov had been a fixture of Russian politics ever since Russian politics came into existence, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. He’d been a popular young governor in the early 1990s, a poster boy for post-Communist reforms, then a cabinet member in Boris Yeltsin’s administration—and rumored to be his hand-picked successor. Then, after Yeltsin picked someone entirely different, Nemtsov continued to organize, protest, and even run in what remained of elections. Vladimir Jr. had been by his side some of that time. When Nemtsov was shot, late one night on a bridge near the Kremlin, Vladimir Jr. was utterly devastated.

Anna Politkovskaya
ITAR-TASS AgencyAnna Politkovskaya

For Vladimir Sr., the memory of Nemtsov’s murder made his own son’s poisoning seem all the more incredible. Nemtsov had been a household name in Russia; to the extent that people knew who Vladimir Jr. was, it was mainly as his father’s son. The more Vladimir Sr. thought about it, the more certain he grew that his son had drunk poison from someone else’s cup.

Vladimir Sr. did not say any of this publicly. What he said to the scores of journalists who started calling once the news about his son broke was this: “I don’t see any sign of foul play. We are putting our trust in the doctors at City Hospital Number One.” His stepson Lev, who was doing as he had been told and reading the wires, thought, “He sounds like someone addressing hostage-takers.”

He was. Vladimir Jr. was tethered to a roomful of machines that belonged to a Russian state hospital. Khodorkovsky, his employer, had wanted to pay to have him evacuated for treatment abroad, but an Israeli doctor who came to organize the airlift deemed it impossible: he said that he saw no way to ensure that the patient would survive the drive to the Moscow airport.

Vladimir Sr. continued to do what Russians do in times of trouble: he made calls to people he imagined might be able to help. One influential friend, a former Yeltsin official who now held a comfortable post in the Putin administration, said, “The chief has ordered him cured.” By “the chief” he could have meant only Putin himself. An order like that, communicated through the health-care hierarchy from the Kremlin, meant that the doctors must break with the usual Russian hospital culture of fatalistic neglect and do more than they knew they could to save their patient. Putin’s will now held Vladimir Jr.’s only hope for survival.

When Vladimir Sr. was not making phone calls, he was receiving them: a pro-Kremlin tabloid famous for rewarding informants in hospitals had written about Vladimir Jr.’s hospitalization within twenty-four hours of the original ambulance call. Now everyone wanted to know what had happened and whom the father blamed. A senior doctor at the hospital told Vladimir Sr. precisely what to say—the trusting words that Lev had read on the wires. The doctor then had Vladimir Jr. moved to a more comfortable room, where his parents could visit him, and even placed a guard at the door. Vladimir Sr. understood that this was his reward for transmitting the correct message.

The message was blessedly easy to spread. Not only did reporters unquestioningly reproduce the statement dictated to Vladimir Sr. by the doctor but a self-policing mechanism instantly kicked in: journalists and bloggers began shaming those who speculated that Vladimir Jr. may have been intentionally poisoned (I was one object of such shaming). Without being explicitly asked to do so, and without phrasing their request directly, a small, spontaneous army began virtually chanting, Keep quiet so he may live.

This, too, was a hostage situation, albeit not a literal one: it was what a great Soviet sociologist, Yuri Levada, had once termed “collective hostage-taking,” which he described as one of “the most potent instruments of coercion and intimidation used by the Soviet state.” This institution derived from a centuries-old tradition of krugovaia poruka—literally, “circular bail.” If, for example, a village resident failed to pay his taxes, the property of any of his neighbors—and any number of his neighbors—could be seized and sold at auction. The threat transformed all members of a given community into enforcers, but not in accordance with codified law—they had to devise their own means of ensuring compliance. It was a nearly fail-safe mechanism of coercion. In the decades after the Great Terror, when most Soviet citizens did not face an immediate threat of imprisonment, the overwhelming majority of the population was kept passive by the understanding that any action could endanger a larger group. For example, when my parents decided to emigrate in the late 1970s, my mother quit her editorial job, which she loved (and the income from which was essential for our family’s livelihood), months before applying for an exit visa, to prevent any negative consequences for her colleagues—for having harbored a traitor to the Soviet cause.

In the case of Vladimir Jr., the situation seemed perfectly clear-cut: in a matter of life and death, there could be no justification for making the otherwise eminently reasonable suggestion that this man, like at least half a dozen others before him, had been poisoned in retaliation for his opposition to Putin. Even Khodorkovsky, who had spent ten years in prison for opposing Putin, refrained from public statements on the matter, surrendering to the resurrection of one of the most important mechanisms of the Soviet totalitarian state.

Vladimir Sr. settled into a routine. In the mornings, he would go to the hospital to see if his son was still alive: this sort of information was not given over the phone. The hardest part was the elevator ride down to intensive care—it was, evidently for pragmatic reasons, located in the basement, next to the morgue. (He invariably shared the lift with orderlies carrying body bags, on their way down to Intensive Care to collect those who had not survived the night. Or at least it seemed that they always rode with him.) After seeing that his son was still alive, Vladimir Sr. would go to the morning meeting of the radio station Echo Moskvy, on which he also had a show. Then he would return to the hospital and stay until it was time to host his show on Radio Liberty.

Vladimir Jr. started regaining consciousness after a week. Speech came later. “Papa, let’s look out the window,” he said. This was the Vladimirs’ stock phrase, used for decades to assert familiarity and a shared point of view—and now employed to show that Vladimir Jr. knew who he was. He had no idea what had happened to him.

It was a month before he could be transported by ambulance to board a plane to fly to Washington, D.C., where he entered a rehabilitation facility. He had lain in bed for so long that the hair on the back of his head had rubbed off—“like when he was a baby,” thought his father—and the muscles of his arms and legs had atrophied. He had a blister on his heel from hitting it on the edge of the mattress repeatedly, from the pain.

By mid-September, Vladimir Jr. had recovered sufficiently to walk, using a cane, to receive an award posthumously given to Nemtsov from Senator John McCain. On September 26, four months after the poisoning, he wrote to his father, “Why wasn’t there a criminal probe?”

Vladimir Sr. could explain. A local Moscow detective had contacted him soon after his son was hospitalized, to ask if he wanted to file a complaint. Vladimir Sr. remembered that after Nemtsov was killed, the police confiscated the dead man’s computers and documents and sealed his apartment—all in the name of conducting a criminal investigation. He imagined his own computer and phone getting seized (they were already tapped, often to comical effect: the software used to collect data off his phone must have been misfiring, because messages and senders seemed to be crossed at random). Worse, he imagined his son being considered a material witness and being prevented from leaving the country if and when he recovered—being held hostage. He told the investigator that no probe was necessary; he even said that he would be willing to write a statement declining any help from the police.

Vladimir Kara-Murza and slain Russian politician Boris Nemtsov, at an opposition rally, Moscow, March 5, 2012
Vladimir Kara-Murza and slain Russian politician Boris Nemtsov at an opposition rally, Moscow, March 5, 2012

But as Vladimir Jr. was being gradually unhooked from the machines of the Russian state in City Hospital Number One, his father began asking questions. The doctors at the hospital said that Vladimir Jr. had overdosed on antidepressants, which had also interacted with anti-allergy nose drops—it was poplar-tree season—causing a catastrophic reaction; American doctors whom he contacted separately a short time later called the interaction hypothesis absurd. As for the antidepressants, Vladimir Sr. dutifully repeated this explanation to the Russian journalists who asked, but privately he and his ex-wife, Vladimir Jr.’s mother, went to their son’s apartment to check his prescription and count the pills. As they expected, they found that their son had been taking his medication precisely according to instructions: there had been no overdose. The medication itself was Prozac, which may be one of the least likely pharmaceuticals ever to cause kidney failure, in any dose.

Vladimir Sr. asked for blood or tissue samples that had been taken before his son’s body was cleansed of toxins by dialysis. The doctors said that they needed to protect the patient’s privacy and could not release the samples. At that point the patient himself was still in a coma—and the doctors naturally perceived no violation of privacy in having his father, who had a power of attorney, give permission for intubation, dialysis, life support, and the like. By the time Vladimir Jr. regained consciousness, the samples had somehow been discarded.

Vladimir Sr. had better luck at Hospital Number 23, which had drawn blood when his son was first brought there by ambulance. The doctors there gave the father a compact disc with the test results, and Vladimir Sr. sent it to Israel to be analyzed. The Israeli doctors saw nothing unusual. Of course, this was only the results. The blood itself had been discarded.

Early on, Khodorkovsky had called asking that hair and nail cuttings be taken for analysis. He must have learned this technique from one of his own lawyers, Karina Moskalenko, who had repeatedly taken Khodorkovsky’s fingernail cuttings while he was in prison—in order to document that he was receiving psychoactive drugs with his prison food, without his consent. (Moskalenko had some personal experience with poisoning, too: in 2008 her husband, two children, and, especially, Moskalenko herself, had felt ill—the culprit was soon identified as mercury in the car she had been driving around Strasbourg, where she worked on cases before the European Court for Human Rights; French investigators found no foul play, but Moskalenko remained skeptical of their conclusion.). The nail and hair clippings, along with the t-shirt with vomit residue from May 26, were sent to laboratories outside of Russia, and these found nothing of note. One of Khodorkovsky’s other staff members, a thirty-year-old blonde named Maria Baronova who ran a legal-assistance program for political prisoners, spent hours explaining to her colleagues that looking for the toxin was worse than looking for a needle in a haystack: with a needle, you at least know what it looks like. With the toxin, there was no hypothesis as to what it might be, only the vague—and unfounded—hope that it had gotten into such far reaches as the nails and hair in sufficient amounts to be noticed. Baronova had been a chemist in her former life, and she had never imagined that her old profession would become relevant to her new, political line of work.

On September 7, 2015, Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. turned thirty-four. His father had been waiting for this day: something had made him believe that the milestone meant that the threat to his son’s life had been vanquished. The following day, Vladimir Sr. made the rounds of the doctors who had treated his son, delivering a bouquet of flowers to each. This, of course, included the doctor who had instructed him what to tell the journalists who asked about foul play.

It took Vladimir Jr. about a year to regain full use of his arms and legs. In the summer of 2016 he ran for a seat in the Russian parliament—and lost. He made a film about Boris Nemtsov. On February 2 of this year, he screened the film in the city of Tver, a couple of hours’ drive from Moscow, and then went to his in-laws’ apartment in Moscow, where he fell ill.

Maintaining one’s connections to good doctors in proper working order is a useful old Soviet habit. While the in-laws were getting Vladimir Jr. into a taxi, his father dialed the doctor who had treated him the last time. The doctor said that he had transferred from Hospital Number One to Hospital Number Seven—and the cab changed course and went directly to Hospital Number Seven.

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United States v. Dylann Roof

Dylann Roof (second from left) during the initial stage of jury selection for his trial for the murder of nine worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina, September 2016
Robert ManiscalcoDylann Roof (second from left) during the initial stage of jury selection for his trial for the murder of nine worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina, September 2016

In early January, three weeks into the federal trial of Dylann Roof, who killed nine black people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015, a prison guard named Lauren Knapp gave testimony about The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Officer Knapp is a lanky woman with short bleached hair and a blunt manner who does not bring to mind a scholar of German Romanticism. From the witness chair Knapp said that in early August 2015, while reading the correspondence of prisoners, looking for references to gangs or to crimes, she came upon the “young Werther letter.”

The two-page text was the first outgoing note written by Roof at the Charleston County Detention Center. Its swooning prose sounded strange to Knapp, who took down a sentence or two and discovered, using a search engine, that these matched an English edition of The Sorrows of Young Werther—“the German book,” she called it. Knapp learned that “the German book” was a novel about unrequited love whose narrator commits suicide and that “it was supposed to have started a suicide fever.” After that, Knapp said, “it was decided to put prisoner Roof on suicide protocol.”

The first measure in the protocol is to remove a prisoner—Roof was in solitary confinement—and perform a search of his cell. This turned up a six-by-nine-inch legal pad that Roof had filled with a thirty-page essay.

“The government introduces the ‘jailhouse manifesto,’” says Assistant US Attorney Jay Richardson, lead prosecutor in US v. Roof. Questioning Officer Knapp, Richardson holds in the air a Ziploc bag with the legal pad—“Government exhibit #500.”

“I object,” says Dylann Roof, rising to his feet at the defense table.

Dylann Roof is a man-child—120 pounds, a blond bowl haircut, and a triangular, adolescent face. He has a ghostly tenor voice. Roof has decided to defend himself during this part of his trial. “I object on the same grounds as before,” he says, raspily. The Werther letter is his possession and not the government’s, he says uncertainly, and it, as well as other of his writings in jail, should be barred from evidence.

“Overruled,” says Judge Richard Gergel, whose long vowels sound like the upstate of South Carolina, his place of origin. Gergel’s home is Richland County, which contains the state capital at Columbia and which happens also to be the defendant’s home county.

“Prisoners’ writings are not their own. And I will cawl it the ‘jailhouse statement,’ which is less pe-jar-rative,” Gergel says.

The jailhouse statement, which Roof wrote six weeks after he committed the worst race atrocity of recent decades, killing a room full of people in the basement of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, consists of a screed against black people and Jews, whom Roof calls “the lower races,” and advocates a eugenics program. (“The Jews are undoubtedly our enemies, indeed our greatest enemy and obstacle in saving our race…. If the Jews had never forced integration, the blacks would of never had a chance to do as much harm to us as they have.” And so on.)

Dylann Roof, it is reported by people close to the case, has a high IQ—141—however, the murderer is not well educated. He left school in ninth grade and later passed an online General Educational Development test. Photographs shown in court of his mother’s house, where Roof lived before the crime, and his father’s separate home, give the appearance that both are book-free.

But the young Werther letter and the jailhouse statement suggest Roof’s fixation on things German. “I have been blessed with a significant amount of German blood, and a German surname,” he writes. A friend told investigators that Roof sometimes retreated to his car to listen to German opera. When he registered as a contributor to the white supremacist website Stormfront and posted comments, he took the user name “LilAryan.” Several pages of drawings on the pad taken from his cell go further. They include renderings of the “Odal rune” (OdalRune) and the “Lebensrune” (Lebensrune), variants of a medieval Norse alphabet that National Socialists used, during the 1930s, in their attempt to construct an Aryan past. And there are plenty of “SS bolts” (SSbolts), emblems of the Nazi Schutzstaffel militia, derived from another Norse rune.

Dylann Roof seems to love German signs and sounds in the special way that white supremacists sometimes do—the ad hoc, derivative, semiliterate way. In a list of German music he admires, Roof names one piece he heard and liked: “symphony 101—the clock,” he calls it, by a composer whose name he writes as “Heiden.”

On June 17, 2015, at 8:00 PM, twelve parishioners met for weekly Bible study in the “undercroft,” or basement, of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in the middle of Charleston, on Calhoun Street. A.M.E. is the oldest black denomination, with eighteenth-century roots, and Emanuel is the mother church of African Methodism in the Deep South. One member of the prayer circle that night was the pastor at Emanuel, Clementa Pinckney, a barrel-voiced, poised, forty-one-year-old senator in the South Carolina legislature, who was dressed, as usual, in a black suit. Another was Felicia Sanders, fifty-eight, a hair stylist and grandmother who came with her son and her granddaughter.

The Bible study group talked about the New Testament parable of the sower in Mark, Chapter 4—“the sower soweth the word…but…Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts.” At about 8:20 a latecomer entered, a twiggy white kid in Dickies pants, wearing a bulging fanny pack. He had blond hair in a bowl cut and bright skin. He took a seat next to Reverend Pinckney, in the rough circle of chairs pulled away from parish hall tables, and Pinckney gave him a printed text and Bible. Dylann Roof kept his head down, wordless for thirty minutes as the prayer leader, a fifty-nine-year-old woman named Myra Thompson, led the group through the parable.

Around 9:00, when the meeting was ending and the twelve stood and closed their eyes for a benediction, Roof pulled a semiautomatic pistol from his pack and shot Pinckney three times. Two women who survived said that, with their eyes shut, they first thought the explosive sound came from an electrical transformer but looked up to see Roof and the gun. Pinckney managed to run twenty feet toward an office door, behind which his wife Jennifer was at work, along with the couple’s six-year-old daughter, Malana. He died before reaching the door.

In the chaos and dread, with people running, Daniel Simmons, seventy-four and a sturdy army veteran, lunged toward Roof and said, “I need to check on my pastor.” He was shot four times, and fell. The rest of the group scattered, taking shelter under the round tables that filled the big room. There were two exits, but they both required running past the shooter.

Dylann Roof, two months past his twenty-first birthday, the threshold age for gun ownership, took another magazine from his pack and reloaded the Glock .45-caliber pistol. He then walked from table to table, shooting the congregants on the floor (eight bullets for prayer leader Myra Thompson, eleven bullets for eighty-seven-year-old Susie Jackson, six bullets for fifty-four-year-old librarian Cynthia Hurd). He reloaded seven times, emptying and shooting for several minutes, firing seventy-seven rounds.

According to survivors, Roof was laconic during the massacre, a trait people in court during his trial came to witness and grow repelled by. He said four things: “Shut up” (to a woman praying aloud); “I have to do this, because y’all are raping our women and y’all are taking over the world” (to Tywanza Sanders, age twenty-six, a poet and rapper, whom he killed after this explanation); “Have I shot you yet?” (to seventy-year-old Polly Sheppard, who answered, “No”); and (again to Sheppard) “Well, I won’t shoot you, because I want you to tell the story.”

The shooter did not find Reverend Pinckney’s wife and daughter, who remained in the church office, crouched under a desk; they survived. And he did not shoot Felicia Sanders, who spread blood on her clothes and lay still, saving her own life and that of her granddaughter. Roof went out the back door, leaving eight dead and one dying, with ammunition still in his gun. He said later he expected police to find him at the church, and he saved bullets to kill himself.

The next morning, 250 miles away in the town of Shelby, North Carolina, Roof was pulled over by local police and arrested, his gun on the rear seat, beneath a white pillow. Dash camera footage of the arrest shows him to have been passive with the white officers, volunteering his name, putting up no resistance. His passivity would be another trait on view in court.

The federal government has executed just three people since 1963. The only terrorist among these was Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and was killed by lethal injection in 2001. Capital punishment being a rarity for the Justice Department, the attorney general must personally sign orders seeking death. The state of South Carolina, meanwhile, has executed forty-three people in the last forty years. US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, a 2015 Obama appointee and an African-American, could have declined to prosecute for death, leaving that path to South Carolina, whose lead prosecutor, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, expressed enthusiasm for the death penalty and a strong desire to use it in a state murder trial of Roof.

In its canvass of the families of those killed, another requirement of federal prosecution, the Justice Department learned that most survivors and relatives did not want death for the killer. Indeed, within a week of the crime—after President Obama eulogized Reverend Clementa Pinckney and sang a verse of “Amazing Grace” to a stadium of mourners—most of what the country knew about the massacre had to do with “forgiveness.” Two days after the shooting, in a video link to Roof’s bond hearing, several relatives of those killed spoke to him and offered him words of absolution. Tens of millions of whites were astonished, although many fewer blacks. Forgiveness is a strong tradition in black Christianity.

A federal indictment laid out thirty-three charges. The 2009 Hate Crimes Act (Title 18, US Code, section 249), one of three laws deployed, does not carry death. However, the more obscure “Obstruction of Exercise of Religion Resulting in Death” (section 247) does, as does a statute about using a gun in a crime of violence, passed in the vengeful years of the war on drugs, during the 1980s (section 924). The two latter laws were appended to the Roof indictment, enabling a death sentence. Attorney General Lynch signed.

Three months before his act of race terror, Dylann Roof drove out to Sullivan’s Island, a narrow sandbar at the mouth of Charleston harbor. During the 1700s, the island was a slave depot, the landfall for ships that brought hundreds of thousands of captives to Charleston from Ghana, Sierra Leone, the Niger Delta, and Angola. Roof was attracted to the island’s slave history and wanted, apparently, to fortify himself with it. And so he went to the beach and etched the number 1488 in the sand. He put a camera borrowed from his mother on a tripod and took a selfie, as a wave rippled over the inscription.

The number 1488 is supremacist code: 14 refers to a micro-creed, fourteen words long—“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”—a sentence crafted by a white supremacist named David Lane, founder of a group known as the Order. The number 88 is shorthand for “HH.” The letter H is the eighth in the alphabet, and among white nationalists 88 translates as “Heil Hitler.”

After Sullivan’s Island, Roof went to several other slave-linked sites around Charleston, all evoking the memory of white mastery—McCleod Plantation, Magnolia Plantation, Boone Hall Plantation, and the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site. He took selfies at each, posing with slave cabins and even with mannequins dressed as slaves. “I prepared myself mentally,” he told investigators.

Dylann Roof being escorted from the Shelby Police Department after his arrest, Shelby, North Carolina, June 2015
Chuck Burton/AP ImagesDylann Roof being escorted from the Shelby Police Department after his arrest, Shelby, North Carolina, June 2015

In early December 2016 a jury is empaneled—nine whites and three blacks, no Asians or Latinos—and events begin under armed supervision. In courtroom number six at the J. Waties Waring Judicial Center, the marshals look like bouncers, their gun holsters bulging under jackets. At times there are four, at times more, armed guards, their numbers changing, one imagines, as death threats rise or fall overnight.

On the first day of the trial, fifty family members of the killed, all but two of them African-American, fill the right side of the spectators’ gallery. Perfectly dressed in church clothes, their voices seem softened by long sadness. For eighteen months these nine families have wept, dealt with TV cameras, talked at rallies, answered news reporters, spent sleepless nights, met with politicians, and appeared on talk shows. Some of the victims lived on Charleston’s East Side, an old section where former slaves moved after the Civil War, still the blackest part of town, with small wooden houses and cinderblock corner stores. Others lived a mile away, in Radcliffeborough, a neighborhood where 150-year-old houses have little gardens. Most came from large, extended families. “Susie Jackson’s people got about a thousand, and they all live near each other,” said one witness, talking about the oldest victim. Black people in Charleston are intermarried and often cousins.

The defendant is solitary. Dylann Roof is a South Carolina boy, born and raised one hundred miles upstate, but he is an isolate. When he enters court from jail, alone, he does not look at the gallery, or even at his lawyers. With scant exceptions, his family do not attend his trial. His grandparents do, for four days. And his parents, one day each, separately.

The principals in the case are in-state people, which means much in South Carolina, where distaste for newcomers runs high. The lead prosecutor, Assistant US Attorney Jay Richardson, was raised in upstate Barnwell County, similar in latitude to the defendant’s and judge’s own Richland County. Richardson, with a wiry frame, his suits too big, parted but uncombed hair, spreads reassurance among whites, largely through his accent, a strong upcountry pitch. Away from the coast, the vowels emerge from the nose; downstate, around Charleston, they shift to the front of the mouth.

Judge Richard Gergel uses vowels similar to Richardson’s. Yet beneath the dialect, Gergel is also unexpected. Appointed to the federal bench by President Obama in 2010, he is a Jew (practicing), a Democrat (vigorous), and a writer (working on a biography of a civil rights judge).

The lead defense lawyer, David Bruck, is something of an outsider, despite having lived for decades in South Carolina. (He has two co-counsel, both women.) Born and raised in Montreal, Harvard-educated, Bruck speaks with Canadian cadences that remind local ears of his far-off roots. A law professor, white-haired, age sixty-eight, he is both nimble and quiet, with an understated, zenlike manner. Bruck is an anti–death penalty activist in a state that is not only friendly to homicide by the courts but has a long history of extrajudicial killing—lynchings, Ku Klux Klan violence, and white race riots. He was lately on the legal team of the so-called Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, sentenced to death in 2015.

Dylann Roof smirks slightly when entering court, before his face goes expressionless. Then he sits, locking his eyes into a stare directed at the table. It is a position he will retain for days, then weeks. He wears a jailhouse jumpsuit, with heavy white and gray stripes and “Charleston County Detention Center” on the back. His lawyers will soon get him into a different uniform, a gray cableknit sweater and dark chinos, for the duration. Roof rarely makes eye contact with the judge, and never with the jury—until the last day, when he rises to speak.

The word “cuck” is a noun that people on the far right use to describe, contemptuously, those who do not believe in the cause of white supremacy. To white nationalists it means, approximately, nonracist, as well as “dupe.” In the courtroom, I look around and decide that many here would attract the insult, “cuck,” including at least some conservatives, none of whom show the least desire to identify with Dylann Roof.

The prosecution makes the opening argument, laying out the crime, sketching the lives of those killed, and calling for the death penalty. David Bruck then stands to face the jury. Though his client has pleaded not guilty, Bruck says, “What you have just heard really did happen. And the defendant in this case did it.” He waves at the defense table and Roof, who stares at the water bottle in front of him.

“The question is not just, did Dylann Roof commit this crime, but who is he? Why did he do it? Where did it come from?”

“Objection,” says Jay Richardson. “This is the guilt phase, in which the deefinse must negate the charges. Not the penalty phase, where the court examines state of mahnd.”

Bruck has surrendered the case at the outset to guilt. He sees the coming verdict and lowers his goal to this: he will try to keep Roof from death.

Judge Gergel sustains the objection; Bruck resumes.

“Ask yourself, where did this extraordinary degree of intense racial hatred come from? Is there evidence from his family? Did he have conspirators?”

“Objection.”

Gergel sustains. “Mr. Bruck, this has not at all to do with guilt. You must restrict your remarks.”

Bruck returns again. Objection.

Five times, Bruck tries to put emphasis on Roof’s mental life; five times the judge admonishes.

The death penalty has become a less common form of punishment over the past few decades. The frequency of capital verdicts has declined 90 percent—from a high of 320 new death sentences in 1996 to twenty-seven in 2016. Are prosecutors and jurors less vengeful? African-American men are more likely to be executed than white, and innocent people are sometimes executed, as revealed by a wave of post-verdict DNA analyses that overturned convictions. For decades, lawyers and juries have been shying from two potent labels—active racist, on the one hand, and roulette killer, on the other. But this is South Carolina, and the so-called Emanuel 9 are a big, gruesome, remorseless slaughter.

Before trial, Bruck moved for a competency hearing, in an effort to show that his client was mentally incapable to stand prosecution. The judge closed the psychiatric examination and bench conference to the public. Roof was questioned by eight doctors and hundreds of pages of evidence were submitted. Judge Gergel sealed the psychiatrists’ reports, but issued a ruling that the defendant “does not suffer from any mental disease or defect which renders him unable to understand” his legal proceedings. Roof is “alert, focused, and confident,” “cogent and articulate,” and he has “an extremely high IQ.” Finding “no cognitive impairment,” Gergel moved to trial.

The judicial determination that Roof is not mentally ill and could stand trial both annoyed and emboldened the killer himself, who did not want to be studied in the first place. (“I am morally opposed to psychology,” he writes in another manifesto from before the crime. “It is a Jewish invention and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don’t.”)

In mid-November, Roof fired his lawyers and acted as his own lawyer during jury selection. The judge opened the door to this, too, ruling that the defendant had made the decision to self-represent “knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily.” Within three days, however, Roof reversed himself and opted for a compromise: Bruck and co-counsel would represent him in the guilt phase of the trial, while Roof would represent himself in the penalty phase—if he was found guilty, as everyone knew he would be.

Amy Cowles Roof, Dylann Roof’s mother, turns up in court with her partner, Dennis Beard. A blond woman of about fifty, with signs of what used to be known as hard living, she sits two rows behind her son, who neither turns around nor acknowledges her.

The first to testify is Felicia Sanders, one of the survivors. Sanders is a composed woman who wears a dress with a flower pattern, and dark glasses, perhaps because they disguise tears. She had come to the Bible study meeting with her son, Tywanza, and her eleven-year-old granddaughter. When the shooting started, Sanders says, she fell to the floor and took shelter under a table, holding her granddaughter—“I muzzled her face to my body so tight.” Blood from the others began to stream toward them, and when Roof was across the room, Sanders rubbed her legs in it to make it appear as if she had been shot.

As Amy Roof listens to this, behind her son Dylann, she begins to tremble. Her partner stays cool. Dennis Beard has a sharp nose, clenched jaw, and shaggy gray hair. The fifty victims’ relatives across the aisle from them also listen, heads dropped to their chests. Weeping begins and spreads.

Sanders says that her son Tywanza, who had been shot once, managed to prop himself up on his elbows and face the killer:

My son rised up…and say, “Why are you doing this?”… And the defendant, over there with his head hang down, refusing to look at me right now, told my son, “I have to do this. I have to do this because you raping our womens and y’all taking over the world.” My son said, “You don’t have to do this…. We don’t mean you no harm.” And that’s when he put about five bullets into my son.

The crying is general in the courtroom: the victims’ families, many of the journalists, some of the jury. As far as I can see, Judge Gergel does not weep, but his eyes fill, and he looks at the ceiling for a long time.

When Roof left the church, Sanders says, she saw her son crawl across the room. “And we watched him take his last breath. I watched my son come in this world, and I watched my son leave this world…. I watched him die.”

Amy Roof lies down in the second row and makes moaning sounds. Dennis Beard puts his arm on her and remains upright.

“Miss Felicia,” says the prosecutor. “I am sorry.”

Jay Richardson sprinkles his upcountry speech with the old form of address, “Miss.” It is the way, in the Deep South, that adults once spoke to women who had graduated to seniority, using their first names and “Miss.” In the mouth of a white man who addresses a black woman, however, the “Miss” formula holds extra charge. It is paternalistic, the way masters talk to good servants. “Miss Felicia” is respectful, but it places race and caste plainly in view.

Felicia Sanders goes on. “He say he was going to kill himself. And I was counting on that. He’s evil. There is no place on earth for him except the pit of hell. Send himself back to the pit of hell, I say.”

Amy Roof sits up, cries loudly, shouts, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” and waves her arms. She stands, leans against a near wall, and collapses to the floor moaning. Judge Gergel calls a recess, and medics are summoned. Dylann Roof does not turn and is led out by marshals. His mother is taken away on a stretcher and never comes back to court.

—This is the first of two articles. Research was supported by the Nation Institute.

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