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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Monday, 12 June 2006
Kafkaesque, in a Good Way

Kafkaesque, in a Good Way

Wheels are turning. The Just Above Sunset computer was just declared real dead, and the shop has just transferred the recoverable files from the carcass of that system to a new external hard drive to plug into the laptop, which now becomes the new Just Above Sunset server. Let's hope it's up to the task. Now it's getting things set up and settled down. This will take some time. Much must be reinstalled or reconfigured. Much will have to be reconstructed. This will take some time.

And while that work goes on, the far wider world, as far as any reasonable person can tell, has gone mad. This is not the usual madness, where you shrug and grin sardonically at the foolishness of those who run things, or think they run things. One expects much of life to be absurd, often in a deadly way, and the only reasonable response is a certain cynicism and determination to do one's best to do one's best, and fix what one can fix in one's own small sphere. But it's almost as if these guys in charge of things are actually trying to test us all. How much utter nonsense will we accept, nodding in reluctant agreement - this must be done, that must be done? They say some things are so, and those things just doesn't seem so, but the majority put them in their positions of power, so you attend to what's in the press and other media, and they aren't laughing scornfully, so what are you going to do? Black is white, up is down, and everyone has his or her own private troubles, so what does it matter?

Too abstract and generalized?

In lieu of more specific commentary this date, here's a bit of what other have been saying about the business down Guantánamo way.

Andrew Sullivan here -
Every time I have tried to write something about the cancer and shame of Guantanamo, and the thought that the United States has strapped dozens of randomly captured individuals in metal restraints in order to force-feed them, I find myself so flummoxed that I give up. It has come to this? Remember: scores of these inmates have almost no evidence against them or have been detained on evidence tainted by torture, and have no way out of an insane system. Remember also: it is perfectly obvious that whatever interrogation techniques we may have used against these people, we have completely failed to get their cooperation to an almost farcical degree. And when some then commit suicide, which is one rational response to the situation, a U.S. general describes their deaths as a form of "asymmetrical warfare?" Again, it is hard to know what to say. These defenseless suicidal inmates are a threat to the U.S. military? Some things are so absurd that they can only be addressed in fiction or satire or silence.

And then you try and use logic that might appeal to a caricature like Rumsfeld and you find yourself thinking: Since whatever intelligence we have procured from these prisoners must now be either moot or exhausted, since they will never be released, and since almost none have had or will have access to anything resembling a fair trial, isn't allowing them to commit suicide the first rational policy we have entertained yet? These prisoners cannot be a threat dead. They are no use alive any more. They clearly prefer paradise to the eternal Cuban limbo they are now enduring. So why keep them on earth? When they're all dead, you can shut the place down, whatever the Supreme Court says. Win-win, no?
And Sullivan points to someone using the pseudonym of "Jon Swift" saying, among other things, this, in "Guantánamo: Kafkaesque, in a Good Way" -
This week three prisoners at the Guantanamo prison camp committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells using bed sheets. "They have no regard for life, either ours or their own," said the commander of the base, Rear Admiral Harry Harris about men who killed themselves. It's easy to understand the frustration of Admiral Harris, who has cared for these prisoners for years only to be repaid with this kind of planned and coordinated attack. Indeed, American guards have already saved 23 inmates from 41 suicide attempts and force fed hundreds of inmates who have gone on hunger strikes while these terrorists continue to wage homicidal campaigns against themselves. One of the men was even set to be released, although no one had gotten around to telling him yet. If there is a better illustration of the different values our two cultures place on life, I don't know what is.

Critics claim that the inmates are in a state of despair and have a sense of hopelessness because officials continue to resist efforts to charge the prisoners and give them trials or release them. Already, nearly half of these dangerous men (and several children) have been released after spending years at the camp, meaning that the 460 who are left must really be bad. Many of these men have not been released for humanitarian reasons because of a very sincere concern that they will be tortured or killed if they are repatriated to governments that are not quite as civilized as our own. Senator Arlen Specter has accused the Bush Administration of "stonewalling" him on the fate of these prisoners and claims that the charges against them are based on "the flimsiest sort of hearsay." He has vowed to fight what he perceives to be this injustice by scheduling hearings that will be postponed indefinitely and writing very frank letters. Unfortunately, these men and their lawyers are not permitted to see the evidence against them because it is Top Secret, which has led Amnesty International to call the Guantanamo prison camp "Kafkaesque." But I think Guantanamo is Kafkaesque in a good way. By not forcing the detainees to contend with the stress of due process, they are being spared the negative outcome of a trial, since it would almost certainly end in a guilty verdict, although they seem to want to carry out the inevitable sentence prematurely.

Although the media has generally been good about not giving these detainees undeserved attention, the failure to prevent this incident, which brings the prison's survival rate from 100% down to a still commendable 99%, has regrettably played right into the terrorists' hands. State Department spokesperson Colleen Graffey called these suicides "a good PR move" and "a publicity stunt," by which I think she means these detainees are sort of like David Blaine, although more successful ultimately in achieving the intended outcome.

Admiral Harris contends ominously that the suicides are in fact an act of war against the United States. "I believe this was not an act of desperation, but rather an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us," Harris said. Asymmetrical warfare is a tactic used by a weaker enemy to surprise and disorient his opponent. In order to restore symmetry to the battle, our side will have to engage in increasingly self-destructive tactics of our own and abandon certain principles and ethical values that hold us back and hand our opponents weak points they can exploit to strike back at us, a strategy we are already using with some success in Iraq.

Coincidentally, Harris predicted that someone would die at Guantanamo in an interview last month and speculated on the aftermath. "We're going to be subjected to a lot of questions, and rightfully so. Legitimate questions. Why did this person die? Did you have something to do with it? Was it of natural causes? And I believe, if it is of natural causes, we're still going to be criticized," Harris said. Unfortunately, these kinds of attacks by the press and other members of the left on U.S. credibility will just turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy as Peter Ingemi explained: "The real danger is that we who support the war will reach the point that we say 'we might as well be taken as wolves then as sheep.' At that point the left can celebrate that they have made our military and those who support it the people they claim we are. Once that happens however any compunction about respecting them will be gone, and remember one side is armed and one is not." In other words, the more the press delves into stories like Haditha, Abu Ghraib and the conditions at Guantanamo, the more likely it is that regrettable incidents will occur. If people are just going to believe the worst mo matter what we do, why should we bother to behave honorably? On the bright side, this will free up our side from certain restraints that limit our ability to fight back.

It seems that any effort we make to appease critics of Guantanamo have only backfired anyway. Some of the men who were released have begun to wage a PR campaign against the United States, another insidious kind of asymmetric warfare. One of the men we released is now claiming that he was tortured at the prison, which, of course, the Bush Administration has repeatedly said in no uncertain terms that we don't do, although if we wanted to torture, we wouldn't be subject to the laws of the Geneva Convention (a treaty some other administration signed anyway) because these detainees aren't lawful combatants, so theoretically we could if we wanted to, but we don't because it is against our principles except in certain circumstances. In the end, however, we may discover that the only way to save the principles make our country great will be to sacrifice them.
Absurd, no? This Swift, not the one from the eighteenth century, says this about himself - "I am a reasonable conservative who likes to write about politics and culture. Since the media is biased I get all my news from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Jay Leno monologues."

It is madness. There was always a touch of the surreal in decisions of the administration, and a certain amount of dreamlike absurdity in the explanations of those decisions - Kafka meets Tom Stoppard, with a touch of the most sardonic of the French existentialists of the early fifties. This is beyond that. Out here in Hollywood this is called "jumping the shark" - and this a major case of that. We are victims here, of three guys who hanged themselves? Right.

And the guys in charge want us to take them seriously? For some, hearing all this must be like waking up inside the Dali painting, with all the clocks melting and the nightmare seascape. How'd we get here?

Minor note - see this from Daniel Engber -
Are Muslims allowed to kill themselves?

No. There's a clear prohibition on suicide in the collected sayings of the Prophet, known as the hadith. In particular, anyone who kills himself must spend an eternity repeating the act in the afterlife: "He who commits suicide by throttling shall keep on throttling himself in the Hell Fire (forever) and he who commits suicide by stabbing himself shall keep on stabbing himself in the Hell Fire."

You won't find as clear a statement in the Quran. This passage provides the closest thing to a ban: "Do not consume your wealth in the wrong way - rather through trade mutually agreed to, and do not kill yourselves." But the word for "yourselves" could just as well be translated as "each other" - which would make this a ban on homicide, not suicide.

Muslim scholars throughout history have noted this ambiguity but have tended to support the prohibition nonetheless. Eight hundred years ago, Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi acknowledged that the passage could be interpreted either way but argued that it's better to assume that it's about suicide.

The long-standing prohibition - which had become entrenched by the ninth century - may have something to do with the low suicide rates in Muslim countries. On the other hand, not all suicides get reported as such. In some cases a family will deny that a suicide has occurred, or they'll keep the cause of death to themselves. Entire communities sometimes join in the denial.

? What about suicide bombers? There's no general agreement about how to distinguish between suicide (intihâr) and martyrdom (istisyhâd). Some argue that you're not committing a sin if you're trying to kill the enemies of God. It's only suicide if you're taking your life for your own benefit.
Oh. That's clear. Both sides are mad as hatters.

And who's in charge?

In the National Review (major conservative journal) John Derbyshire breaks ranks with his kill-them-all war buddies here -
We are not controlling events in Iraq. Events in Iraq are controlling us. We are the puppet; the street gangs of Baghdad and Basra are the puppet-masters, aided and abetted by an unsavory assortment of confidence men, bazaar traders, scheming clerics, ethnic front men, and Iranian agents. With all our wealth and power and idealism, we have submitted to become the plaything of a rabble, and a Middle Eastern rabble at that. Instead of rubbling, we have ourselves been rabbled. The lazy-minded evangelico-romanticism of George W. Bush, the bureaucratic will to power of Donald Rumsfeld, the avuncular condescension of Dick Cheney, and the reflexive military deference of Colin Powell combined to get us into a situation we never wanted to be in, a situation no self-respecting nation ought to be in, a situation we don't know how to get out of.
Ah, no one is in charge, and there's no way out. Absurd, and just like the play, No Exit -
The play begins with a valet leading a man named Garcin into a room that the audience soon realizes is in hell (many people believe that hell is portrayed as a gigantic hotel because of the "rooms and passages" mentioned in the play). The room has no windows, no mirrors, and only one door. Eventually Garcin is joined by a woman (Inès), and then another (Estelle). After their entry, the valet leaves and the door is shut and locked. All expect to be tortured, but no torturer arrives. Instead, they realize they are there to torture each other, which they do effectively, by probing each other's sins, desires, and unpleasant memories. At first, the three see events concerning them that are happening on earth, though they can only observe and listen, but eventually (as their connection to Earth dwindles and the living move on) they are left with only their own thoughts and the company of the other two. Near the end of the play, Garcin demands he be let out; at his words the door flies open, but he and the others refuse to leave.
Sartre, 1944 - just stuff on stage. Now in 2006 it makes perfect sense. We're here.

Posted by Alan at 21:51 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 13 June 2006 17:13 PDT home

Sunday, 11 June 2006
Hot of the Virtual Press
Topic: Announcements

Hot of the Virtual Press

The new issue of Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-format site that is parent to this daily web log, is now online. This is Volume 4, Number 23/24 - for the week of June 11, 2006.Click here to go there...

This week is a double issue. The computer used to build and maintain the site failed on May 31 and there was no issue last Sunday. That's still in the shop and this issue was built on a laptop purchased to fill the gap.

This week, there are seven extended commentaries on current events, an amazing photo essay from Ric Erickson, Our Man in Paris, and a photo essay from Our Man in Tel-Aviv - Sylvain Ubersfeld. And there are three photo pages on the Hollywood often missed, and seven pages of special Southern California shots, some quite amazing.

And more of the weird from our friend in Texas, and new quotes.

Direct links to specific pages...

Extended Observations on Current Events __________________

Changing the Subject
The Great Divide
The Dog That Didn't Bark
A Good Death Assessed
Assessments: Looking at Death at the End of the Week
Late News: Things Turn Sour

The International Desk __________________

Our Man in Paris: The Sundown Show
Our Man in Tel-Aviv: Moving South, Changing Culture

Hollywood Matters __________________

Architecture: Architectural Detail and Hollywood History
Oddities: Fooling the Eye in Hollywood
Landmarks: Things Not To Do In Los Angeles

Southern California Photography __________________

Trains: Mediations on the Past, in Color
Not Hollywood: Encinitas on a Quiet Afternoon
Long Light
Treacherous Unbrightness
Lens Work: New Eye on Hollywood
Botanicals: Details, details, details...
Odd Shot: The Pause That Refreshes

Quotes for the week of May 28, 2006 - Pertaining to Current Events

Posted by Alan at 17:57 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Saturday, 10 June 2006
Late News: Things Turn Sour
Topic: Breaking News

Late News: Things Turn Sour

Well, it finally happened. It was inevitable. But luckily it happened on a weekend, not in the middle of the normal news cycles. The Monday morning issues of Time and Newsweek and the others have been put to bed, as they say, and the cable news networks are running their canned "backgrounders" - and the commentators, O'Reilly and Matthews and the rest, are off-air for the weekend. This will come up on Meet the Press and the other Sunday morning talk shows, but only political junkies watch those. And since the news takes the weekend off, the story gets buried. When the national dialog, or whatever you call it, starts up again Monday, this will be old news. Other events will come along and push it aside. And there are two days to work on spin if someone does want to discuss the matter.

The Associated Press account here gives the basics -
Three Guantanamo Bay detainees hanged themselves with nooses made of sheets and clothes, the commander of the detention center said Saturday.

They were the first reported deaths among the hundreds of men held at the base in Cuba - some of them for up to 4 1/2 years and without charge.

Two men from Saudi Arabia and one from Yemen were found "unresponsive and not breathing in their cells" early Saturday, according to a statement from the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, which has jurisdiction over the prison. Attempts were made to revive the prisoners, but they failed.

"They hung themselves with fabricated nooses made out of clothes and bed sheets," Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris told reporters in a conference call from the U.S. base in southeastern Cuba.

Pentagon officials said the three men were in Camp 1, the highest maximum security prison at Guantanamo, and that none of them had tried to commit suicide before.

That camp was also the location where two detainees tried to commit suicide in mid-May, when a riot broke out at the facility. The two men, who took overdoses of an anti-anxiety medication they hoarded, were found and received medical treatment and were recovering.
This just looks bad, and the president can't catch a break - we killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the nastiest guys in Iraq, and that was something to crow about, if you're into that sort of thing. Now these three guys do this and make us look bad. We were supposed to be treating everyone humanely and appropriately, and they get all uppity and hang themselves.

We are holding four hundred sixty folks down that way in Cuba, saying they have links to al Qaeda and the Taliban, although there's some proof many of them were nobodies sold to us as bad guys for the substantial cash we offered, and there have been no real hearings in the more than four years to straighten it all out. Some were captured thirteen and fourteen-year-old kids. We say they all have intelligence value and we will extract from them, one way or another, what they know about ongoing plots to attack America. That seems a bit silly as what they know is more than four years old - we've had them more than isolated. But there they stay.

Add to this the AP item reports that the Pentagon also postponed the military tribunal of one Binyam Muhammad, an Ethiopian detainee, originally scheduled for next week. He's charged with conspiring with Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders to attack civilians and such. It seems like a bad time to start straightening things out, right now. The president was at Camp David and was told of what happened, and the State Department was immediately consulting with the governments of the home countries of the three prisoners. This needs to be handled carefully. The home governments might be a bit miffed.

But we did the right thing, after all -
The military said in its statement that "all lifesaving measures had been exhausted" in the attempt to revive the detainees. The remains were being treated "with the utmost respect," an issue important to Muslims. A cultural adviser was assisting the military.

Though the military termed the deaths suicides, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service was investigating to establish the official cause and manner of death.
But this comes after the UN report in May - holding detainees indefinitely at Guantanamo violated the world's ban on torture. The UN said we should close the place. We disagree, even if German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and British Prime Minister Tony Blair say we should shut down the place. They may be allies, and pro-Bush, but this is our way of handling things, and we assert we know best, and it's really none of their business.

Well, actually it's more complicated -
On Friday, after the prison came up during a meeting with Fogh Rasmussen at Camp David, Bush said his goal is to do just that. A total of 759 detainees have been held there, with about 300 released or transferred.

"We would like to end the Guantanamo - we'd like it to be empty," Bush said. But he added: "There are some that, if put out on the streets, would create grave harm to American citizens and other citizens of the world. And, therefore, I believe they ought to be tried in courts here in the United States."

Bush said his administration was waiting for the Supreme Court to rule whether he overstepped his authority in ordering the detainees to be tried by U.S. military tribunals.
There are legal issues, you see, and four and half years of Cuba might make them dangerous if we let them go, even if they were or weren't dangerous before.

AP quote Josh Colangelo-Bryan of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who discovered one of his clients attempting to hang himself last year when he visited Guantanamo, saying there would be more suicides. One of the prisoners said this to him - "I would simply rather die than live here forever without rights."

But we say all these detainees pose a danger to the United States and our allies. What can we do? As the statement from the military put it - "They have expressed a commitment to kill Americans and our friends if released. These are not common criminals. They are enemy combatants being detained because they have waged war against our nation and they continue to pose a threat."

But they've proved none of that. No real hearings. You have to trust them on that. Why not?

One of those release last year, Moazzam Begg, says to the Associated Press - "We all expected something like this but were not prepared. It's just awful. I hope the Bush administration will finally see this is wrong."

Not likely. Now we can't be. We've cornered ourselves on that.

So, so far, forty-one suicide attempts by twenty-five prisoners, and three polled it off. The few lawyers we've let in say the number of attempts is far higher, but then, the military says otherwise.

Barbara Olshansky of the Center for Constitutional Rights, representing three hundred of these folks, in telephone interview from New York, is reported to have said those held at Guantanamo "have this incredible level of despair that they will never get justice. And now they're gone. And they died without ever having seen a court."

But we said they were guilty. There were bad guys. Still Olshansky is calling for the Bush folks "for immediate action to do the right thing. They should be taken to court or released. I don't think this country wants the stain of injustice on it for many years to come."

She doesn't understand Dick Cheney, or the Texan president he manages. They've convinced most of the country that this is justice - you don't necessarily need things proved at all, or a trial or hearing or military tribunal to establish the facts. You just know some things are so.

Ah well. They'll be a bit more careful down there with the sheets now.

It hasn't been going that well -
On May 18, in one of the prison's most violent incidents, a detainee staged a suicide attempt to lure guards into a cellblock where they were attacked by prisoners armed with makeshift weapons, the military said. Earlier that day, two detainees overdosed on antidepressants they collected from other detainees and hoarded in their cells. The men have since recovered.

There also has been a hunger strike among detainees since August. The number of inmates refusing food dropped to 18 by last weekend from a high of 131. The military has at times used aggressive force-feeding methods, including a restraint chair.
Of course our "image" in the world is now going to be lower than ever. The administration's take on that - Who cares? - will be picked up by the pro-administration commentators, while the more diplomatically-minded, the dinosaurs, will wonder how much we can really do in this sorry world with no influence, no leverage, and just the biggest military on the planet. So we move further and further into becoming a pariah, and rouge state ourselves, but will the overwhelming military and the core economy.

These three sure messed things up, just when we assassinated a really awful man and everyone was supposed to admire us for that.

Now what? Let the spin begin.

First up is this -
The commander of the US Joint Task Force Guantanamo, Rear Admiral Harry Harris has described the overnight suicide of three inmates "as an act of war."

Three detainees at the US detention centre committed suicide by hanging themselves with clothing and bedsheets. Rear Admiral Harris, commander of the Joint Task Force Guantanamo, described the suicides as an act of creative and committed terrorists. "They are smart. They are creative, they are committed. They have no regard for life, either ours or their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of ...warfare waged against us."
Ah, those clever devils.

Posted by Alan at 18:10 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 10 June 2006 18:11 PDT home

Friday, 9 June 2006
Assessments: Looking at Death at the End of the Week
Topic: Perspective

Assessments: Looking at Death at the End of the Week

At the end of the week, Friday, June 9, 2006, it was clear that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, much like Generalissimo Franco, was still dead, although much was happening, as noted here - a whole lot of intelligence was recovered in the operation and all day Friday our guys carried out some forty raid to keep the late man's network from regrouping in any way.

But the odd thing is that even after the two five-hundred pound bombs (actually one six-hundred and two pound bomb and one five-hundred fifty-tow pound thingm as noted here), Zarqawi initially survived the bombing and was alive when captured, although in bad shape, understandably -
A mortally wounded Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was still alive and mumbling after American airstrikes on his hideout and tried to get off a stretcher when he became aware of U.S. troops at the scene, a top military official said Friday.

"He mumbled something, but it was indistinguishable and it was very short," U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said at a news conference.
The joke going around Friday was that he whispered one word - Rosebud. It's now an obscure joke, as no one remembers the movie. It's a Hollywood thing.

As for how this came about, there's more detail here with lots of links -
An Iraqi customs agent secretly working with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's terror cell spilled the beans on the group after he was arrested, Jordanian officials tell ABC News. Ziad Khalaf Raja al-Karbouly was arrested by Jordanian intelligence forces last spring.

Officials say Karbouly confessed to his role in the terror cell and provided crucial information on the names of Zarqawi commanders and locations of their safe houses. Karbouly also admitted to his role in the kidnappings of two Moroccan embassy employees, four Iraqi National Guards and an Iraqi finance ministry official.

In a videotaped confession, Karbouly said he acted on direct orders from Zarqawi.
And the comment added there -
The US does not approve of torture, claims President Bush. Does anyone have any doubt that Ziad Khalaf Raja al-Karbouly, the Iraqi customs inspector who turned on Zaqarwi after being arrested and held for months by the Jordanian police, talked as a result of being subjected to torture? Connect the dots.

So now we use information gained from torture to murder our target. What makes us different from them?
Good question. But for Americans, results matter, not principles. Or results matter more, even if we talk about principles endlessly, and somewhat vacantly.

But the results could be mixed. Consider what Senator John McCain said on CNN's Larry King Live (video here), concerning the successful targeted assassination of Zarqawi -
KING: What difference will it make?

MCCAIN: I think that it will remove a very important propaganda tool, a person who has probably served as a real effective recruiter. But, Larry, I want to caution if I were the al Qaeda people right now I would be planning a lot of attacks in the next few days and weeks to show that his removal really didn't affect them but it does affect them. It's very important. And, I think it can give us some hope for progress, which I think we have to make and are making.
Was he encouraging al Qaeda to begin killing more people. No, he wasn't. He was just being logical.

And as for being logical, Jonathan Schwartz here suggests reading this from Nir Rosen, one of the few western journalists who has direct contact people in the Iraqi insurgency.

The key passage from Rosen is this -
So time to dispel some myths. Zarqawi did not really belong to al Qaeda. He would have been more shocked than anybody when Colin Powel spoke before the United Nations in the propaganda build up to the war and mentioned Zarqawi publicly for the first time, accusing him of being the link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Zarqawi in fact did not get along with Bin Ladin when he met him years earlier. He found Bin Ladin and the Taliban insufficiently extreme and refused to join al Qaeda or ally himself with Bin Ladin, setting up his own base in western Afghanistan instead, from where he fled to the autonomous area of Kurdistan in Iraq, outside of Saddam's control, following the US attacks on Taliban controlled Afghanistan in late 2001. Zarqawi only went down into Iraq proper when the Americans liberated it for him. He had nothing to do with al Qaeda until December 2004, when he renamed his organization Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, or Al Qaeda in Iraq as it has become known.

Why did he do this? It was a great deal for him and Bin Ladin. Zarqawi needed the prestige associated with the Al Qaeda brand name in global jihadi circles... For Bin Ladin and his deputy Zawahiri it was also a great deal. Al Qaeda was defunct. Its leadership hiding in the Pakistani wilderness, completely cut off from the main front in today's jihad, Iraq. When Zarqawi assumed the al Qaeda brand name he gave a needed fillip to Bin Ladin who could now associate himself with the Iraqi jihad, where the enemy was being successfully killed every day, and where the eyes of the Arab and Muslim world were turned to, far more than Afghanistan.

Zarqawi was not very important in the first place, and hardly represented the majority of the resistance or insurgency... It took the United States to make Zarqawi who he became. Intent on denying that there was a popular Iraqi resistance to the American project in Iraq, the Americans blamed every attack on Zarqawi and his foreign fighters, and for a while it seemed every car accident in Baghdad was Zarqawi's fault. The truth was that much of Iraq's Sunni population, alienated by the Americans who removed them from power and targeted them en masse during raids, supported and participated in the anti American resistance. Even many Shias claimed resistance. Muqtada Sadr, the most powerful and popular single individual leader in Iraq, led two "intifadas" against the Americans in the spring and summer of 2004, and his men still rest on their laurels, claiming they too took part in the Mukawama, or resistance. But by blaming Zarqawi for everything the Americans created the myth of Zarqawi and aspiring Jihadis throughout the Arab world ate it up and flocked to join his ranks or at least send money. Zarqawi was the one defying the Americans, something their own weak leaders in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and elsewhere, could not do, having sold out long ago. It was then comical when the Americans released the Zarqawi video out-takes and mocked him for fumbling with a machine gun. Having inflated his reputation they were now trying to deflate it. But it was too late.
This man, now dead, was an opportunist, and a master at marketing - in this case marketing of the nastiest sort. So was the tall Osama. And maybe so are we. Everyone gets spun, and many people die.

And the spin on whatever happened at Haditha continues. Twenty-four civilians dead, shot at close range, including women and very young children. But Clarice Feldman at The American Thinker (a somewhat pretentious name for an opinion site) offers Evidence Accumulates Of A Hoax In Haditha - people who don't like us just make things up. That got a lot of comment, as in this - the whole thing is just like the fake memos Dan Rather at CBS said were true, the ones that he said proved Bush wasn't really the heroic jet fighter pilot and war hero and all that. Whatever. The whole thing rests on the idea that you just cannot trust Iraqis, as they are unreasonably angry and wretchedly ungrateful and will say anything, even after all we did for them. You can't trust these people.

James Wolcott of Vanity Fair has a different odd take here -
Yesterday Bob Kerrey was on the Imus show, and in the midst of decrying the incident, he threw out a comment about how he wondered if we polled the people of Haditha, how many of them cheered the sight of the falling towers on 9/11. I'm not sure what that would accomplish or what it has to do with whatever happened vis a vis the Marines (I'm not even certain what the media penetration of Haditha was in 2001), but it seemed to be the sort of thinking-off-the-top-of-one's-head intended to put this incident back into a container.
Well, it is extraordinary spin. Can we go back in time and find out if on September 11, 2001, these people caught CNN or BBC World Service and were dancing in the dusty streets there in joy, and if they were, can we kill their children now? That's simultaneously wildly hypothetical and a bit cold. But Bob Kerrey was probably just trying to say the Marines of Kilo Company might have thought this could have been so, so you can understand them losing it. That's very weird, but it's one way out of the box.

There's a comprehensive review of the other current rationalizations here, even if so overwrought you have to wade through deep bogs of angry sarcasm to get to the main points - isolated incident, bad apples, lies by people who just don't like us and all the rest. The usual.

As for the "bad apple" theory, see Rosa Brooks in the Los Angeles Times here -
It's a tempting theory, and not just for the Bush administration. It suggests a vast and reassuring divide between "us" (the virtuous majority, who would never, under any circumstances, commit coldblooded murder) and "them" (the sociopathic, bad-apple minority). It allows us to hold on to our belief in our collective goodness. If we can just toss the few rotten Americans out of the barrel quickly enough, the rot won't spread.

The problem with this theory is that it rests on a false assumption about the relationship between character and deeds. Yes, sociopaths exist, but ordinary, "good" people are also perfectly capable of committing atrocities.
That's followed by the expected, a review of the 1961 experiments by that Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram - almost anyone will inflict severe pain on others if authorized by an authority of some sort and everyone else is doing the same. Yeah, yeah. But she adds this -
But let's not let the Bush administration off the hook. It's the duty of the government that sends troops to war to create a context that enables and rewards compassion and courage rather than callousness and cruelty. This administration has done just the opposite.

Our troops were sent to fight an unnecessary war, without adequate resources or training for the challenges they faced. At the same time, senior members of the administration made clear their disdain for the Geneva Convention's rules on war and for the principles and traditions of the military. Belated and halfhearted investigations into earlier abuses sent the message that brutality would be winked at - unless the media noticed, in which case a few bad apples would be ceremoniously ejected from the barrel, while higher-ups would go unpunished.
Yep, so it seems.

Wolcott recommends William S. Lind on the same matter here -
The investigations of Marines for possible murders of Iraqi civilians in Haditha last November and, more recently, in Hamdaniyah, seem set to follow the usual course. If anyone is found guilty, it will be privates and sergeants. The press will reassure us that the problem was just a few "bad apples," that higher-ups had no knowledge of what was going on, and that "99.9 percent" of our troops in Iraq are doing a splendid job of upholding, indeed enforcing, human rights. It's called the "Abu Ghraib precedent."
But there is a counterargument -
The fact that senior Marine and Army leaders don't seem to know what is going on in cases like this is a sad comment on them. Far from being exceptional incidents caused by a few bad soldiers or Marines, mistreatment of civilians by the forces of an occupying power are a central element of Fourth Generation war. They are one of the main reasons why occupiers tend to lose. Haditha, Hamdaniyah, and the uncountable number of incidents where U.S. troops abused Iraqi civilians less severely than by killing them are a direct product of war waged by the strong against the weak.

... Every firefight we win in Iraq or Afghanistan does little for our pride, because we are so much stronger than the people we are defeating. Every time we get hit successfully by a weaker enemy, we feel like chumps, and cannot look ourselves in the mirror (again, with IED attacks this happens quite often). Whenever we use our superior strength against Iraqi civilians, which is to say every time we drive down an Iraqi street, we diminish ourselves in our own eyes. Eventually, we come to look at ourselves with contempt and see ourselves as monsters. One way to justify being a monster is to behave like one, which makes the problem worse still. The resulting downward spiral, which every army in this kind of war has gotten caught in, leads to indiscipline, demoralization, and disintegration of larger units as fire teams and squads simply go feral.
That a quite different psychological view of things. What does happen to the strong around the weak? Strength doesn't ennoble anyone. It only diminishes them. Very Zen.

So what do we do here?

Well, we get rid of people like Abu al-Zarqawi, but see John Robb at Global Guerrillas here -
Zarqawi is best categorized as violence capitalist, very similar to bin Laden, that supported and incubated guerrilla entrepreneurs of the new open source warfare model. In this role he was instigator of violence and not the leader of a vast hierarchical insurgency.

... He expanded the target set for the insurgency, changed tactics when they proved disadvantageous (ie. beheadings were stopped and he ceded Iraqis control of the jihadi effort), and expanded the plausible promise of the insurgency to include sectarian war.

His main failure was that he didn't fully appreciate the value of systems disruption. His only attack on a systems target (the Basra terminal) was a failure. He also proved unable to give up operational roles in favor of becoming a strategic communicator (which ultimately led to his death).

... If we put Zarqawi within a historical context, he was able to do what Che hoped to do with a focused insurgency... In essence, he proved that within a modern context (open source warfare and systems disruption), it is possible to seed the collapse of a state.
We shall see if the seeds of this odd sort of capitalism grow. He's dead. Now we have to deal with the franchisees.

And still we apply maximum force. What else can we do? We are strong. We have the firepower. We do the John Wayne thing - few words, big gun, take no crap from anyone.

On the other hand, as the president patterns his own behavior on John Wayne, or so it has been said, it should be remembered the Duke once said this - "I've always followed my father's advice: he told me, first to always keep my word and, second, to never insult anybody unintentionally. If I insult you, you can be goddamn sure I intend to. And, third, he told me not to go around looking for trouble."

The third part is the problem, that "bring 'em on" stuff. Someone should have paid more attention at the movies.

But someone didn't pay enough attention to another famous line from Wayne - "Talk low, talk slow, and don't talk too much." Guys, it was advice on acting, not on conducting the nation's business here and abroad.

Posted by Alan at 22:34 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 9 June 2006 22:55 PDT home

Thursday, 8 June 2006
A Good Death Assessed
Topic: Perspective

A Good Death Assessed

Thursday, June 08, 2006, was a big day in the news. Just think about what happened. The new Iraqi government finally got its act together and became, well, if not a fully functioning government, at least a fully staffed one -
The Iraqi parliament agreed upon candidates to lead the country's three top security ministries Thursday, ending a weeks-long stalemate among the country's largest political factions.

The selection of an interior minister, a defense minister and a national security adviser gives Iraq a complete government for the first time since elections in December 2005 and it provides a key opportunity to promote political reconciliation between members of the country's Sunni Muslim minority and the Shiite-dominated government.
Now that's a milestone. And it took long enough, but maybe now, after six months of dithering, they can get organized and shut down the militias and the death squads, which might be followed by restring services and taking over security matters a bit, thus producing some light at the end of the tunnel for us. But then that tunnel metaphor has its history from the days of our war in Vietnam - the oncoming train and all that. The task of settling things down is not an easy one, and maybe close to impossible. But you have to start somewhere. This is that somewhere. That should have been the big news of the day, but it wasn't.

Congress had other things on their collective mind, such as it is. The day after the Senate killed the attempt to start the process to amend the constitution to ban gay marriage, there was another killing - the Senate blocked the permanent repeal of the estate tax, or death tax, or whatever you wish. Temporarily suspended in the economic mess a few years ago when the financial district in lower Manhattan was coated in ash and body parts, it will return in 2010, just as it had been before, heavily taxing the 1.17 percent of the population with extraordinarily large estates when the holder of the estate dies. The Republicans ranted about how unfair it was to tax these folks, even if it meant losing a trillion dollars in revenue over ten years - fair is fair and all that. They earned what they earned. But two Republicans broke ranks and joined the Democrats thinking this was the wrong time to forgo the revenue, what with the massive and record federal deficit financed by some not so friendly governments buying oodles of treasury bonds and all, and all that had to be cut back in social spending and even the military, the VA and emergency response things. It seemed irresponsible, and maybe immoral, and in addition a bit hard to explain to the voters back home, except for the voters in the choice 1.17 percent group. There are just not enough of them. Yeah, that some group pumps great gobs of money into the campaign coffers, but that's not the same as raw votes. The whole thing is covered here if reading about what won't now happen interest you.

That made the Republicans 0 for 2 for the week - shot down on making sure the gays don't get the same rights as everyone else, and then shot down on protecting the right of the very wealthy to pass every penny of the family fortune on down to the next generations - more than a few pennies will now be surgically removed once again. It'll be just like old times. The remaining issue to be dealt with is of course voting to start the process to amend the constitution to ban flag burning, something no one has done since the late sixties. Some see it as a way to start to carve out exceptions to free speech while others see it as finally a way to tell people there are some things that just have to be respected. It's a little abstract, given that no one much burns flags any more, but it seems important to the Republicans. They've got this victim thing going. No one respects their values and all that, so make them show respect, damn it. This one is closer to passing, but it well could be an 0 for 3 week for them. And if it gets through the Senate and House, three-quarters of the states must agree that there really are certain things you can't do and can't say, beside the classic limitation on shouting fire in a crowded theater. It would be a step in the direction of making things more orderly and decent, or something like that.

But it will probably lose in the Senate, and that may be the plan - part of the victim thing where you get to say we tried to do thing right thing but the nasty and godless liberals who really run everything beat us up, and are you going to stand for that? The Republicans do the patriotic martyr thing very well indeed. It sells out in the heartland.

But they did win one, the legislation regarding Janet Jackson's very erect nipple. As noted here, the fines for the broadcasters who don't block nipples and such will increase tenfold, and they'd better watch the language that gets broadcast. This doesn't pertain to bars serving odd mixed drinks like Sex on the Beach or Coconut Orgasm. That's for later - first the broadcasters, later the printed menus. Making things more orderly and decent has to start somewhere, and this is that somewhere - passed by both houses and signed into law. We all feel safer.

But then almost none of this news got any coverage on the Thursday in question. That was because that day we learned that two F-16's bombed a safe house in the Iraqi town of Hibhib, killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and seven of his aides. Two five hundred pound bombs will do that. President Bush said this guy the "most wanted terrorist in Iraq" and the mastermind behind most all the bombings, beheadings, assassinations, suicide missions, and the Sunni insurgency. British Prime Minister Blair said the "death of al-Zarqawi is a strike against al-Qaeda in Iraq, and therefore a strike against al-Qaeda everywhere."

But they both kept it low key. Bad things will still happen, and they've lost their villain to blame for all that will come - forty more people blown up in various parts Iraq the day of the announcement. Bush and Blair know enough now not to say everything is now fixed and all better. They have a created a new martyr (that's what al-Zarqawi's brother says here. And that University of Michigan professor Middle East matter, Juan Cole, here says al-Zarqawi wasn't linked to the real al Qaeda at all, and basically al-Zarqawi "engaged in grandstanding" when he named his group "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia," and that "official US spokesmen have all along over-estimated his importance" -
There is no evidence of operational links between [Zarqawi's] Salafi Jihadis in Iraq and the real al-Qaeda; it was just a sort of branding that suited everyone, including the US. Official US spokesmen have all along over-estimated his importance. Leaders are significant and not always easily replaced. But Zarqawi has in my view has been less important than local Iraqi leaders and groups. I don't expect the guerrilla war to subside any time soon.
But he could be wrong. Cole was up for an appointment to the faculty at Yale but they decided no, after all the pressure from the right, many of whom where alumni. (Not to worry - the University of Michigan has a far better marching band.)

So was the guy a big deal?

Hard to say.

Late in the day the Los Angeles Times ran this -
Reactions Thursday to Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi's death reflected the contradictions and conspiracy theories that surrounded the elusive figure in life.

American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called al-Zarqawi the "godfather of sectarian violence in Iraq" during a speech Thursday morning in Baghdad, shortly after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's televised announcement of al-Zarqawi's killing.

But from Iraq's Anbar province, where the insurgency is strongest, to the Palestinian territories, al-Zarqawi was mourned as a martyr whose cause would continue long after his death Wednesday in a U.S. bomb attack.

"He died, but thousands of al-Zarqawis will follow," said Hussein Hashim Falluji, a 54-year-old Sunni merchant in Fallujah.
And they go on with an interesting survey.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar at Rand Corporation out this way simply says this - "Zarqawi may be gone, but the conflagration that he set alight continues to burn." It's good we got him, but he may have not been the real problem.

The Brookings Institution's Ivo Daalder explains -
What we have in Iraq today - and have had for many, many months - is not a traditional insurgency or even wanton terrorism, but a large-scale sectarian conflict. Much of the killing in Iraq today isn't the result of Zarqawi's men, but of Sunni and Shiite militias engaged in a big fight for control of neighborhoods, towns, cities, and the resources they control. The vast majority of the 1,400 bodies that showed up in the Baghdad morgue last month (that's right: 1,400 bodies - or nearly 50 people each and every day!) were killed by militias of one kind or another. The guys responsible for these deaths are not fighting an existing government (which is what an insurgency implies) but they're fighting to determine who governs Iraq and what spoils will fall to which group of Iraqis.
So it's a small but significant victory, but perhaps irrelevant.

And then there was that NBC News thing from March 2004 (here) with a number of intelligence people going on record saying we had at least three chances to take the guy out before the war, and when asked for permission to pull the trigger, on the F-16 or Hellfire equivalent of a trigger, the White House said no. He was a useful symbol - an al Qaeda guy actually in Iraq. He was our proof of the connection. And that was useful, even if he was in the north where Saddam was not in control at all. No one notices such details.

So now he matters in different way. As the president said - "It's a victory in the global war on terror, and it is an opportunity for Iraq's new government to turn the tide of this struggle."

Note he didn't say this was turning point. It's an "opportunity" for one. And it's not up to us, but to Iraq's new government. Things go bad? Don't blame us.

Of course the acerbic Christopher Hitchens weighs in here -
The latest Atlantic has a brilliantly timed cover story by Mary Anne Weaver, which tends to the view that Zarqawi was essentially an American creation, but seems to undermine its own prominence by suggesting that, in addition to that, Zarqawi wasn't all that important.

Not so fast. Zarqawi contributed enormously to the wrecking of Iraq's experiment in democratic federalism. He was able to help ensure that the Iraqi people did not have one single day of respite between 35 years of war and fascism, and the last three-and-a-half years of misery and sabotage. He chose his targets with an almost diabolical cunning, destroying the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad (and murdering the heroic envoy Sérgio Vieira de Melo) almost before it could begin operations, and killing the leading Shiite Ayatollah Hakim outside his place of worship in Najaf. His decision to declare a jihad against the Shiite population in general, in a document of which Weaver (on no evidence) doubts the authenticity, has been the key innovation of the insurgency: applying lethal pressure to the most vulnerable aspect of Iraqi society. And it has had the intended effect, by undermining Grand Ayatollah Sistani and helping empower Iranian-backed Shiite death squads.

Not bad for a semiliterate goon and former jailhouse enforcer from a Bedouin clan in Jordan. There are two important questions concerning the terrible influence that he has been able to exert. The first is: How much state and para-state support did he enjoy? The second is: What was the nature of his relationship with Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida?
Okay, was Saddam or some state supporting him, and how did he get along with the tall odd one?

Hitchens does make an odd concession - "The man's power was created only by the coalition's intervention, and his connection to al Qaida was principally opportunistic."

That's what Mary Anne Weaver documents here in an account of the first meeting of the now quite dead bad guy with Osama bin Laden -
As they sat facing each other across the receiving room, a former Israeli intelligence official told me, "it was loathing at first sight."

According to several different accounts of the meeting, bin Laden distrusted and disliked al-Zarqawi immediately. He suspected that the group of Jordanian prisoners with whom al-Zarqawi had been granted amnesty earlier in the year had been infiltrated by Jordanian intelligence; something similar had occurred not long before with a Jordanian jihadist cell that had come to Afghanistan. Bin Laden also disliked al-Zarqawi's swagger and the green tattoos on his left hand, which he reportedly considered un-Islamic. Al-Zarqawi came across to bin Laden as aggressively ambitious, abrasive, and overbearing. His hatred of Shiites also seemed to bin Laden to be potentially divisive - which, of course, it was.
Green tattoos? The guy knew nothing about job interviews. No tattoos.

Zarqawi made a name for himself with the Sunni insurgency in the first few months after Baghdad fell, but may not have been the central figure and ticked off lots of people - the hotel bombings in Jordan, with the wedding there and all, seemed a tad over the top.

Weaver -
"Even then - and even more so now - Zarqawi was not the main force in the insurgency," the former Jordanian intelligence official, who has studied al-Zarqawi for a decade, told me. "To establish himself, he carried out the Muhammad Hakim operation, and the attack against the UN. Both of them gained a lot of support for him - with the tribes, with Saddam's army and other remnants of his regime. They made Zarqawi the symbol of the resistance in Iraq, but not the leader. And he never has been."

He continued, "The Americans have been patently stupid in all of this. They've blown Zarqawi so out of proportion that, of course, his prestige has grown. And as a result, sleeper cells from all over Europe are coming to join him now."
So the light at the end of the tunnel may indeed be the oncoming train. No tears for the guy. He was one bad piece of work. But he was a small part of the puzzle.

The question is now what? More tax cuts? Ban flag burning?

Posted by Alan at 23:43 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 9 June 2006 08:02 PDT home

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