Every year, I do an annual round-up of the articles that have made the most lasting impression on me, my colleague, and readers. Every year, I become dismayed by the downward spiral in which we all seem to find ourselves; and the relentless, almost childish, hope with which we attempt to enter the new calendar year. 2020 has squashed all hope. It has extinguished all life. I am writing this at the end of a very thin rope tied to a tree battled by the Storm Bella winds. Journalism, like any other profession, has found itself both at the forefront of several crisis that snowballed into what seems like a world implosion, while at the same time, appearing to write and report from a backseat to those little, or less little, fires everywhere. If this is too much for us, news consumers, it was definitely a burnout for news writers. Describing 2020 will never be possible without understanding all the previous round-ups that led us there; it is unlikely 2021 will provide us with any form of respite, as we will awake, should we ever be visited by blissful sleep, with the sharp knife of the Brexit guillotine on New Year’s Day. Somehow, the pieces I have chosen this year seem to have a common underlying current: empathy undeterred by undeniable fatigue. If journalism is a window into our world, then it remained clear, and allowed us to see that, in this endless and global isolation, we were very much not alone. Despite the losses and the fear, the violence and the retribution, the work continued. As such, I will now add a link to donate to Reporters Sans Frontières with every round-up.
Each photo in this blog has been captured by Zach D. Roberts.
Without further ado, and in no particular order of preference,
It Felt Like Love. Lina Mounzer, Newslines Magazine. October 18, 2020.
This article starts with a defiant “fuck this country”, something that has resonated with millions. Because misery loves company, the political nightmare that had embroiled Lebanon through corruption, ineptitude, and poorly thought alliances reached its paroxysm with a perfectly avoidable explosion in its port that leveled its surroundings, could be heard all the way from Cyprus, and registered a 3.3 on the seismological scale. Thinking of Lebanon, of its protests, the repression thereof, conjures images of support, community, and impossible hope. If anything, it was in the power of protest that many found solace in 2020. Lina Mounzer speaks of participating in uprisings as a way to fight against the unmovable, political opposition as an individual and collective transformative experience, and of the joy of revolutionary conduct. There is fear, and fearlessness; there is responsibility, and defiance; there is powerlessness, and a cry for power. This wonderful ode to the strength of numbers in the streets was in direct proportion to the sense of helplessness that has long characterized life in Lebanon. Her last line is perhaps what we all need to read.
The Hidden Cruelty of Executions. Liliana Segura, The Intercept. October 17, 2020.
Segura has long been the torch-bearer for death penalty reporting, in all its complexity, legal wrangling, last minute appeals, and extreme frustration at a country that pretends to protect human life, whilst extinguishing it in the name of a concept of justice most democracies long revoked. This year saw the Trump administration revive the near defunct federal capital punishment – only three executions took place since SCOTUS reinstated it in 1988 -, and after the election in November, a rapid pace of supposedly judicially approved killings, as if emptying death row was a priority before the transition. In 130 years, no president had sought to execute during the transition period. Executions are difficult in and of themselves. Detainees are to be killed after awaiting a pardon, a commutation, or a stay at the very last minute. Defense attorneys are scheduled to be present and watch their client die. What about families? Well, few of them are asked for comment. The Justice Department announced in its release about federal death row that it would “bring justice to the families of victims”, but what does it look like? What about the families of detainees? The cruel, unusual and degrading treatment of the death penalty doesn’t stop at the stretcher – and Segura’s work, poignant, necessary, thorough, compelling, and grippingly empathetic – could be the answer to Robert Badinter’s body of work.
Don’t Even Think About Leaving NYC. Nathan Thornburg, The Atlantic. March 27, 2020.
This starts a long line of pandemic-related articles. The world was put on pause in 2020, a scary situation for a city like New York City, that had prided itself for centuries on never sleeping, never stopping, and defying all odds, from the 1977 black out to the destruction of its skyline in 2001. New York City, ever so resilient, was now eulogized in endless articles. On one hand, yes, restaurants, concert venues, bars, and other businesses dependent on crowds, visitors, and presence were inevitably affected by a pandemic and a federal government that could not care less. On the other, New York City is resting on the identity of New Yorkers; they are New Yorkers before being American, they are New Yorkers before being globalists, and they are New Yorkers before being partisan. At least, most of the time. This pandemic has exposed the worst that the gentrification of a city once described as feral: the rich, mostly concentrated on the Upper West Side and in Williamsburg, deserted the city in troves at a time it needed an influx of donations. Instead of saving its stages – concerts, theaters; instead of supporting small businesses by ordering delivery; instead of assisting the humanitarian effort before the docking of the USNS Comfort, many chose refuge in states that were, by then, not yet affected by a city that had then lost as many as the whole of France, and buried them in mass graves on Hart Island. Is New York City dead? Thornburg refused to say so. And New Yorkers will keep on fighting.
How Trump Brought Home The Endless War. Stephen Wertheim, The New Yorker. October 1, 2020.
It had been predicted by all terror commentators: the hybrid warfare fought overseas would inevitably permeate domestic politics. Or was it the other way round? After a summer of fighting for the existence of black lives in the streets from sea to shining sea, the only way the Trump administration could think of responding was libeling US residents as insurgents. Deployment of federal troops, use of military intelligence, overuse of post-9/11 institutional architecture, such as the overbearing and overwhelming presence of Homeland Security and relevant agency, fanned the flames of political dissent. Journalists, lawyers and medics were being savagely beaten and arrested by law enforcement. The Attorney General, Bill Barr, commented on the insurrectionist nature of the lawful and peaceful right to assembly in the face of a grave human rights violations. NYC, Portland and Seattle were declared “anarchist jurisdictions”, as if the rule of law had been suspended, not just violated by state violence. The use of less-lethal weapons far exceeded UN guidance. White supremacists entered into a domestic arms race to assist law enforcement, turning a blind eye to the FBI’s warnings this could cause extreme unrest. “You have to dominate”, said Trump to state governors, while legislators had clearly opposed his position (“Get your jackbooted goons out of my city”, Sen. Ron Wyden famously said). The war on terror was now at home. The unnamed and invisible enemy was the US population. The terror was human rights.
Black Lives Matter Is America’s Ray of Light This Independence Day. Washington Post Editorial Board. July 3, 2020.
And now for something completely different: the act of protest is for the cause to be seen, heard, and addressed. For many, the mobilization in 2020 that far exceeded that of its early presence in 2013 and 2014, even extending worldwide, was a vindication of their trauma, pain, and struggle for equality. Art giants, from movie directors to music performers, joined in by creating uplifting and energizing pieces. Protest became joy, a theme already addressed when it comes to Lebanon. Mourning black lives turned to embracing the love for those who were there. Demanding justice for the dead was matched by supporting the living in all areas in which they were discriminated against – from education to employment, health care and detention. In the backdrop of a pandemic, the isolation felt by many sought an end in those socially distanced, masked protests, despite the violence with which they were policed, and the visceral reaction in the media. Social justice movements are rarely supported from the moment they spring, but for the Washington Post, and I’m sure many others, the real firework, the real spark, was the power of protests and the endless commitment to equality that was demonstrated day after day since June 1st: “a different sort of illumination from America, far brighter and more significant than the spectacle of a pyrotechnic show“, they wrote. Fighting for one another, and refusing political violence, white supremacy, means that for many, suddenly, they were seen. Suddenly, they could step out and see that not just their community, but their country, was fighting for them. This is what sustainable change can do.
Sending Out An SOS. Mark Drumbl, Opinio Juris. December 15, 2020.
Of course, 2020 was extremely testing for human rights and the rule of law in general. We’ve had to see the name of the General Prosecutor and her first aide listed on the US Treasury List alongside known and suspected terrorists, and the United Nations Secretary-General concede to Mike Pompeo because the institution suffered a terrifying cash flow after US withdrawal from UN institutions. It’s not navel-gazing or self-victimization to accept that 2020 just wasn’t a good year to be a practising lawyer or a legal scholar. Frankly, the years that preceded it weren’t great either. It felt like sending a message in a bottle and expect for the message to not just be heard, but be returned; because someone would have been a recipient and sought to engage. Instead of operating in a vacuum that benefits absolutely no one, legal expressivism is now an obligation. In holding a symposium on “justice as a message”, the incredible folks at Opinio Juris forced the profession to reckon with how we were conducting our work, which criticism could be heard and found constructive, but also who we are working for, and what we seek to achieve. Unless our fundamentals are not clearly stated like hearts on a sleeve, we may risk losing the battle against the rule of international law. We may lose sight of other battles in our periphery, that require our assistance, but not our (pre)dominance. A vulnerable, yet incisive, reflection on what it means to be a lawyer – alongside many oeuvres of the same acabit that make for mandatory reading for young lawyers and not-so-young alike.
How The Pandemic Defeated America. Ed Yong, the Atlantic. September 2020 issue.
I had just touched down in Dublin after flying through Storm Ciara when news arrived that a particularly contagious strain of SARS was making its way around the globe. It would be a couple more weeks before I was hurriedly send home, never to leave it for the next six months. This pandemic has defeated more than America; it has defeated international institutions, domestic governments, and individuals’ mental health. It has claimed more than 1.7 million lives worldwide at the time of writing, and continues unabated. There is no greater leveler than a pandemic. The Black Plague, the spanish influenza, AIDS, all pandemics were a form of a reset button. What has stunted many was the lack of preparedness, the partisanship in matters of public health, and the selfish, grating, horrific lack of empathy for the troves of dead. When morgue trucks made their grim return to New York City after 2001, it was clear that this was not going to be a year like another. A fight against science, a fight against expertise, a fight against empathy, and ultimately, a fight against our own mortality was waged in parallel to the battle for medical equipment, medical personnel, and medical resources. In the United States, the only developed country not to provide any form of universal health care, with an uneducated lunatic at its helm, the virus devastated the country. It ravaged more lives than any war it had ever waged, and destroyed more families, cities, and industries than the Great Depression. If anything, this pandemic exposed how vain and superficial our economic structures were, and how fragile our democracies could be in the face of dire crisis. This piece, one of the most sobering reads of the year, can be analyzed one of two ways: a requiem, or a wake-up call. You decide.
Shut The Fuck Up and Obey. Spencer Ackerman, The Daily Beast. December 23, 2020.
Always partial to the work of who I believe to be the greatest national security reporter of his generation, Ackerman received the news of the pardon of the Blackwater operatives found guilty of the Nisour Square massacre in 2007 on the heels of the impending publication of his book, Reign of Terror, chronicling the war on terror. The conflation of the future he did not want to see after diving into two decades of state violence and endless war was necessarily going to be more than reporting the news: it was going to be opinionated. This pardon, seen as a “fuck you” by many in the human rights law and humanitarian law field, was nothing short of an insult for Iraq, a country that continued to see in the United States and in the coalition the fact that human rights are not universal, and nothing is fair in the endless war. No rights, no justice, no accountability – it is difficult then to accept that peace could ever grow in the region after adding such dramatic insult to unforgettable injury. What transpired during the trial of those four men – Slatten, Heard, Liberty, and Slough – was complete disregard for the rules of engagement; the usual machismo and bloodshed of contractors without codes of military conduct; and cultivated hatred for an enemy that they had very much designated before action were taken. There was a before and after Nisour Square in Iraq. There was a before and after this trial for the United States. For many national security observers and commentators, the sentencing, after a trial that I myself had covered and revealed many glaring dysfunctions, was acknowledgement this would be as much as they could possibly get. And this poor excuse for justice had been removed from under the feet of advocates, military veterans, and most of all, Iraqi civilians. If rage pours out of this piece, it is entirely righteous.
The Brexit Vote Four Years On: How A Project To Boost Prosperity, Democracy and National Pride Destroyed All Three. Jonathan Lis, The Prospect. June 23, 2020.
Well, national pride is never a good sign on any agenda, but Brexit has finally come to an end. Not a bang, but a whimper. Not bells, but freight, mail, and imports halted at ports. Not joy and recovery, but airlifting of perishable goods. The United Kingdom, that will soon be only a shadow of its former transnational self, has burnt all bridges. Freedom of movement, human rights, exchange programmes, medical administration, security cooperation, all sacrificed at the altar of the cheapest of populisms and a four year long protracted battle with an institution it helped build. We are less than a week away from the first days of England drifting away in the North Sea, as Scotland prepares for independence and Northern Ireland for reunification. If one journalist almost lost his shirt, his patience, and his mind over Brexit, it’s Jonathan Lis, who made appearances on this list before. With the gift that is hindsight, and the years of meaningful votes in so many iterations it became risible, or the extension of negotiation periods for lack of preparation or knowledge of legal entanglements, it was then possible to say, this has failed. It has failed. With ridicule, with shamelessness, and the debilitating need to watch everything burn. England will finally see the tabula rasa only a handful truly wished to experience – at the expense of, well, everything else.
The Trauma of Trump’s Border Wall. Ryan Devereaux, The Intercept. October 31, 2020.
Symbolism is everything, especially under populism. And so Trump’s campaign to isolate the country, not just at diplomatic level, but physically, literally, by building an actual wall, as if it he sought to emulate the Soviet bloc in 1961, became a monument to the inhumane stupidity of this era. Ryan Devereaux, who spent several years covering the USMEX border, humanitarian efforts to provide assistance to asylum seekers, the criminalization of movement and safe haven, as well as the torture perpetrated in immigration detention, this time faced the cement, steel, and barbed wire testament to the hatred of anyone who isn’t white. Let’s face it, the border wall was not just a creation of isolationism and “border control”, it was a tool of oppression. Beyond the very dire and very pressing questions of ICE detention and practices, were the lives directly affected were those of indigenous populations, environmental activists, builders and movers, employers and families. The construction of that wall was a direct attempt at interrupting their lives for the long haul, and at destroying what they had come to know as the place where they would nurture and thrive. While the incoming Biden administration continues to argue we will “heal”, that we should “unite”, this is far too soon: undoing the trauma of Trump’s policies and windmill dreams will take generations. The lives this destroyed will not likely forget, let alone forgive. The affected demographics are much larger than most anticipated. And they can not heal, for as long as this large wound is allowed to fester.
I had, of course, listed more. There are, of course, many more that were submitted. Louisa Loveluck’s heart-wrenching piece on the Beirut explosion is one that should remain in everyone’s mind, as well as the fight by anti-fascist activists statewide, facing armed white supremacists. The battle is not over. But this year that felt like a decade has come to an end.