Saturday, October 07, 2006

Your weekend reading list

I'm still catching up on things which appeared while on vacation. So, as a service to my (few but elite) readers, here are three things to print out and consider carefully. You'll be glad you did.

1. At the New Yorker, Amy Davidson talks to Seymour Hersh, Jon Lee Anderson and George Packer about Iraq and the War on Terror (remember, kids, these were not always the same thing...though in recent years they've become ever more connected).

This is an enormously important, perceptive and readable analysis of what the past five years have amounted to in terms of making the world safe from terrorism. Or not, as the case may be.

As is so often the case, Sy Hersh has most of the best lines (though Anderson and Packer have a lot of worthwhile things to say too):
Hersh: [...] Like a lot of people, I accepted the premise of the Afghan war; I accepted the premise that it wasn’t that irrational, that we had to do something. I didn’t accept it the second time, in Iraq. If the Administration wants a role model for how to respond to grave abuses in terms of international terrorism, look at the Indian government and Mumbai, the train bombing there. The government treated it like a criminal activity. By going to war, instead of criminalizing what Osama bin Laden and his minions did—there’s no question that, in terms of military operations, this is the worst government in the history of America.


DAVIDSON: I want to go back five years, to the moment right after 9/11 when we talked a lot about justice, about bringing the perpetrators to justice, and to the question of whether there has been justice for 9/11. Sy, you mentioned Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is described as the mastermind behind 9/11. He’s actually in U.S. custody. Why hasn’t he been brought to trial?

HERSH: Because the Administration has chosen not to do so. I think that one of the reasons is that at trial he would talk about how he was treated. If somebody would come into a courtroom describing the kind of treatment he’s reportedly had at the hands of the United States, a conviction might be very hard to get. We simply decided very early on that it was acceptable for us to be goons, and we’ve been goons. It still goes on. It is beyond stupidity.


DAVIDSON: The White House would say we have to give up some expectations about, say, the privacy of telephone calls, to make sure that 9/11 doesn’t happen again.

HERSH: There are ways to deal with that within the confines of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and this Administration chose not to do that, for whatever reason—for security, or because it didn’t want people to know what was going on. They’ve demonstrated a contempt for the Constitution. We really have a constitutional crisis. We’ve got a crisis in terms of what’s going on in Iraq: as Jon Lee said, a civil war is going on there; we just don’t want to use those words.

DAVIDSON: Is America stronger now than it was five years ago?

HERSH: Oh, my God—nobody would argue that. Nobody would say that. You’ve just heard thirty minutes of conversation about how we are perceived. We haven’t done the right thing in terms of reconstruction; we haven’t done the right thing in Iraq. There’s no conceivable way we’re in better shape. Why there hasn’t been an attack in the United States—I don’t have an answer for that, but I don’t believe that’s going to be a political vehicle for George W. Bush. We’re not stronger, in any sense, because we’re not nearly as respected, and the invincibility shield is gone.

2. Sticking with the Iraq theme, though on a somewhat more polemical note, Tom Engelhardt has a good collection of 21 questions about George Bush's Iraq. Perhaps the most disturbing pair of questions (in terms of comparing the costs and benefits of the war):

How many Iraqis are being tortured in Baghdad at present?

Precise numbers are obviously in short supply on this one, but large numbers of bodies are found in and around the capital every single day, a result of the roiling civil war already underway there. These bodies, as Oppel of the Times describes them, commonly display a variety of signs of torture including: "gouged-out eyeballs… wounds… in the head and genitals, broken bones of legs and hands, electric and cigarette burns… acid-induced injuries and burns caused by chemical substances, missing skin… missing teeth and wounds caused by power drills or nails." The UN's chief anti-torture expert, Manfred Nowak, believes that torture in Iraq is now not only "totally out of hand," but "worse" than under Saddam Hussein.


How is Iraqi reconstruction going?

Over three years after the invasion, the national electricity grid can only deliver electricity to the capital, on average, one out of every four hours (and that's evidently on a good day). At the beginning of September, Iraq's oil minister spoke hopefully of raising the country's oil output to 3 million barrels a day by year's end. That optimistic goal would just bring oil production back to where it was more or less at the moment the Bush administration, planning to pay for the occupation of Iraq with that country's "sea" of oil, invaded. According to a Pentagon study, "Measuring security and stability in Iraq," released in August, inflation in that country now stands at 52.5%. (Damien Cave of the New York Times suggests that it's closer to 70%, with fuel and electricity up 270% from the previous year); the same Pentagon study estimates that "about 25.9% of Iraqi children examined were stunted in their physical growth" due to chronic malnutrition which is on the rise across Iraq.

3. An essay at Butterflies and Wheels from Jonahan Thake with the thoroughly excellent title 'On Multiculturalism and Religion - Jesus Doesn't Morris Dance'. Here, Thake considers a number of mistakes being made in contemporary debates about and discussions of religion.

One important point (among others):

In a free society you absolutely do not have to respect other people’s systems of ideas. That is the whole point. You have complete freedom to question them, improve upon them and mock them as you choose – and never forget that a religion is just a system of ideas with a magical fantastical dimension.

No particular deference should be shown to supernatural worldviews. If Paine can be mocked, so can the tooth fairy.

Furthermore, if the system of ideas in question is a repressive one, then as far as you have any duty, you have a duty to show disrespect. Stand up for freedoms other people bled to give you.

Anyone who asks for enforced respect is asking for some very serious powers. They would need a very large thought police squad to check all the libraries, consider all the minds and wipe all the lobes of any dissent. A quick list of interesting questions makes the multicultural credentials of this position look rather hastily stamped:

  • How can we study science if we have to check results to see they don’t make a mockery of x possible holy books?
  • How can we respect the voice of the democratic mass if we have to first respect the booming voice of a very large god?
  • Who decides if enough scraping respect has been shown?
  • Who decides the punishments if it hasn’t?

Don’t trust people who talk earnestly of respect. It is an elastic word that springs back very tightly.

Of course, when some people talk of respect they don’t mean obeisance, they just mean tolerance or accommodation. But we should not automatically assume that this gentlest interpretation of respect is the one religious people are using. The British government plays with extending the blasphemy law; a Sikh mob attacks a theatre; this is respect for religion enforced by prison and sticks.

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