Notes on a time of crisis

September 27, 2001

I'm going to go way out on a limb here and suggest that some of you probably think that Rush Limbaugh is a complete moron--an advocate of a short-sighted, me-first, I-got-mine-Jack philosophy , a philosophy of greed and self-interest the cost of which will be paid by our children and grandchildren for decades to come. But here's the question: as destructive as you consider his views, would it ever even occur to you to accuse him of being a traitor, of being "unamerican"?

The correct answer, for the purposes of this essay, is "no, of course not, Tom." Chances are you just don't think in those terms.

But let's say there's a fellow whois obsessed with much that is distinctively American, from comic books to roadside diners to Airstream trailers. And let's say that he has the means to travel to pretty much any exotic locale which strikes his fancy, but has chosen more than once to spend his vacation time instead exploring the blue highways and roadside attractions of his own land, because it is what he likes to do.

And let's also postulate that our hypothetical American citizen believes profoundly in the ideals of our democracy--but frequently finds fault with the actions of our leaders, particularly when they are in clear conflict with those ideals. Let's say he's raises a question or two about the wisdom of our forthcoming military adventure.

Do you imagine for a moment that Rush and his followers would hesitate to denounce this fellow as "unamerican"?

The correct answer is again, "no, of course not, Tom."

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Do conservatives and hawks really believe that anyone not in line with their view of America is in fact secretly sympathetic tot he Taliban? Secretly rooting for the terrorists and mass murderers?

Actually, on some level they do, and that's the frightening thing. You've heard it by now: anyone who suggests that the terrorists were not acting in a geopolitical vacuum is immediately shouted down, scorned for suggesting that America "deserved" this attack.

The roots of this go back, certainly to the Palmer raids and anti-immigrant hysteria of the twenties, and probably even earlier--but really solidified during the Cold War. Things were so much more clearly defined then, or at least seemed that way to a lot of people--two superpowers, two dominant ideologies battling for control. You're either with us or your're against us.

Conservatives have been floundering since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They can't label their ideological opponents "Communists" any more. They've tried to substitute "socialists," but it doesn't really have the same bite. Lately, they've settled on the somewhat clunky "Blame America Firsters," an awkward but effective way to dismiss anyone who questions the actions of our (theoretically) elected leaders. (There's also the old "East Coast elitist" label, but I think in the wake of the WTC disaster, that one's just not going to work so well for awhile.)

I've got a little bit in common withthat hypothetical fellow above, and I'll tell you: I am getting truly irritated by the latter-day McCarthyism springing up around me. Exercising that "freedom to disagree" to which our president gave lip service the other night does not make one a traitor. Freedom of speech doesn't mean anything if it exists conditionally. And exercising that freedom of speech doesn't make you some sort of enemy within, some infestation that "real Americans" must grudgingly tolerate in order to uphold their ideals.

I'll be frank: If you are the sort of person who is stirred by the sight of an American flag waving in the breeze, I will not pit my unthinking patriotism against yours, because I would surely lose. I'm too cynical, too aware of the lessons of history. Does that mean I'm not a "real American"? The chucklehead who shot the Sikh gas station attendant last week did it for his country; did it because he believed himself to be "real American." And he was. As far as I'm concerned, anyone with an American passport is a "real American." It's a semantically null statement . It's like arguing about whether a dog is a "real dog," or a tree is a "real tree."

I read a line once, I wish I could remember who wrote it: "Think of the nation as the country's day job." The country is the place, the people, the extraordinary absurd exuberance of giant fiberglass animals and palaces made of corn and crazy folk artists in rural Georgia and, yes, twin towers that pierce the sky. The nation is an ever-shifting set of political priorities arising from and imposed on that country--corporate tax breaks, welfare reform, a few missiles lobbed here and there. This seems so obvious, but apparently needs to be reiterated: You can love the country and still find fault with the nation.

* * *

Michael Kelly doesn't see it this way. He wrote a column equating dissent with treason. "You are either for doing what is necessary to capture or kill those who control and fund and harbor the terrorists, or you are for not doing this. If you are for not doing this, you are for allowing the terrorists to continue their attacks on America. You are saying, in fact: I believe that it is better to allow more Americans- perhaps a great many more - to be murdered than to capture or kill the murderers."

This is, of course, utter nonsense. Every rational person understands that some sort of action needs to be taken here. Some of us are just concerned that we will blunder in like the proverbial bull in the china shop, and in the process, give further life to that which we seek to destroy.

Let's keep in mind that bin Laden and the Taliban are at least partially our own creation, one-time Cold War surrogates. Our actions, if ill-considered, can have further unforeseen consequences which are *far* more likely to result in the death of more Americans than an expression of doubt, a prayer for peace.

Oh, but there I go, blaming America first again.

* * *

Ken Silverstein wrote the best piece I've seen so far on "Our Scary New Best Friends," the Northern Alliance. They may be the only game in town, but they seem like the very definition of blowback waiting to happen, and if we choose them as our newest surrogates, I wonder what price we will pay ten years down the road. The following is an excerpt from his article on (I think it's in the Premium section, unfortunately).

* * *

Lost, however, amid the hype around our newfound allies, which ruled
Afghanistan from 1992 until 1996, is their own troubling history --
including shocking human rights records, thievery and a sheer governing
incompetence that in large part led to the rise of the Taliban.

"Many of their leaders should be indicted for war crimes," says Patricia
Gossman, a consultant on human rights in South Asia who has traveled widely
in the region. "Some top [alliance] commanders have records almost as bad as
that of the Taliban."

Summing up the group's four years in power, a Human Rights Watch report
issued in July reports that there "was virtually no rule of law" in any of
the areas it controlled and that its constituent members, constantly warring
with each other, were guilty of summary executions, arbitrary arrest,
torture and "disappearances." One terrible outburst took place in 1995, when
one faction of the group captured a neighborhood in Kabul that had been an
opposition's stronghold. The "troops went on a rampage, systematically
looting whole streets and raping women," according to a State Department
account of the events.

The level of ignorance about the anti-Taliban rebels is so great that the
government and press don't even call it by its proper name. The Northern
Alliance was the name of a coalition of forces, including some in the
current anti-Taliban movement, that existed in the early-1990s. The
organization that the government and press now speak of so fondly is
actually called the United National Islamic Front for the Salvation of
Afghanistan, or the United Front. The United Front supports the Islamic
State of Afghanistan (ISA), the regime ousted by the Taliban five years ago.

But it was disgust with the United Front that paved the way for the Taliban,
which arose in 1994 and effectively gained power two years later. Since
then, the various United Front factions have been mostly on the run, though
they have all continued to be responsible for terror attacks on their
enemies. In 1997, in the strategic town of Mazar-i Sharif, Junbish troops
systematically slaughtered at least 3,000 captured Taliban troops, some of
whom were stuffed down wells and blown up with hand grenades, according to
accounts cited by Human Rights Watch. The United Nations all but ignored the
Taliban's demand that it investigate the massacre. Of course, the Taliban
was less interested in promoting human rights when it took back the city and
slaughtered between 2,000 and 8,000 people in the streets.

In September of 1998, troops believed to be under the command of recently
slain military leader Ahmed Shah Massoud fired rockets into Kabul. One hit a
busy market, where as many as 180 people were killed. In late 1999 and early
2000, people fleeing from villages near Sangcharak reported to humanitarian
workers that United Front troops, who had held the town for four months, had
carried out summary executions, burned down houses and conducted wide-scale
looting. Some of those executed were reportedly killed in front of family

Even today, the United Front is less of a front than a very loose coalition
united by its hatred of the Taliban. It is torn by factional clashes and
personal rivalries, with the various partners so mistrustful of each other
that they have never merged their military structures and have no united
strategy to confront the Taliban.

But the United Front's ugly side can't be a surprise to the press. Since
Sept. 11, several thousand people, presumably many of them journalists, have
requested the July report from Human Rights Watch, which details much of
what is reported here. Instead, most reporters and pundits seem to be
patriotically turning a blind eye to our new partner's shortcomings.

* * *

Our new best friends indeed.

* * *

The Taliban are truly, truly bad guys. They have tortured and repressed the population of Afghanistan, particularly the women, who are denied access to health care or even the right to leave the house unaccompanied by a man, and who are subject to a brutalpunishments for the most minor infractions (all of which is primarily known thanks to the efforts of those feminists Jerry Falwell saw fit to blame for the terrorists' actions). When asked about the propriety of using a Western-funded soccer stadium as an arena for mass executions, a Taliban official helpfully explained that if the West didn't like it, they should fund arenas built specifically for executions.

But if we are to be at war with them--and whether or not you think this is a good thing, it seems almost inevitable--we must take to heart the distinction between the government and the people .

The following was written by Joe Conason (also in Salon), a writer with whom I have not always agreed, but with whom I find common cause on this issue:

* * *

Consider the ravings of Bill O'Reilly, highest-rated hothead on Fox News Channel, who demands that "the U.S. should bomb the Afghan infrastructure to rubble -- the airport, the power plants, their water facilities and the roads." This airborne terror is justified, according to him, because "the Afghans are responsible for the Taliban ... if they don't rise up against this criminal government, they starve, period." O'Reilly repeated this same genocidal theme a few days later, urging that the targets such as trucks and infrastructure so that "there's not going to be anything to eat."

The ignorance represented by such comments is almost as staggering as the cruelty -- since our government is probably far more responsible for arming and promoting the Taliban than any of the powerless Afghan people. As ought to be known to everyone by now -- including even O'Reilly -- the American weaponry, intelligence and funding provided to the "Afghan freedom fighters" in their war against the Soviet Union led directly to the Islamist takeover of that ruined nation. Here in New York we have just paid a terrible price in blood and grief for that reckless mistake, but the unfortunate Afghans already have paid far more...

The more decent course of action is also the most effective policy. As the United States and its allies muster their forces for strikes against carefully chosen Taliban military and strategic assets, they must mobilize an enormous "humanitarian offensive" to bring food and medicine to the Afghan refugees and, eventually, to those who have not yet reached the borders. Success, in the sense of maintaining a united international effort against bin Laden and his backers, is otherwise impossible.

The catastrophe that has befallen the Afghans presents a momentous oppportunity for the United States and its allies. America should "bomb them with butter," as someone said the other day. We should demonstrate that if the Islamist fascists won't care for their own people, we will. We should prove to the world's billion Muslims that our aim is not to exterminate their brothers and sisters and children, but to rescue them.

* * *

Speaking of hawks, Dorothy Rabinowitz shared this wisdom with the readers of the Wall Street Journal op-ed page yesterday:

"There were admonitions against military retaliation--the cycle of violence argument. Yes, it would be reasonable, under the circumstances, to seek justice, the argument goes, and also to protect ourselves, but we must somehow find a way to do this without resorting to the use of armed might. Connected to these is the still more wonderous precept that we should proceed, respectfully, to seek the killers who came to destroy as many of us as they could, and try not to offend these enemies, drenched in our blood."

Compare that to the tone the administration itself is trying to set , in these paragraphs from today's New YorkTimes:

"One broad hint that no dramatic attack is imminent came on Tuesday from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who said of the struggle against the terrorists, 'This is not something that begins with a significant event or ends with a significant event.' He spoke instead of 'incremental steps.'"

"'We could do a lot more harm than good,' said a State Department official. 'Remember, we didn't get anything out of the carpet-bombing the B-52s did in Vietnam, and we had a lot better target information there than we're ever likely to have in Afghanistan.'"

"Even as administration officials voiced confidence that Mr. bin Laden was guilty, they seemed less sure that he could be brought to justice simply by military strikes. 'The diplomatic instrument with the intelligence instrument with the miltary instrument,' a senior administration official said, 'are much more effective than any one of them individually.'"

None of which is to suggest that you should rest easily as this long night looms. There are still factions within the administration which advocate bringing Iraq into the conflict, possibly other countries. The machinery of war is being primed, and will probably be put to use. But it seems clear that the administration has a much more realistic view of the situation that lies ahead than armchair warriors such as Michael Kelly and Dorothy Rabinowitz and Bill O'Reilly. And for this small tidbit I suppose we should be grateful, even if it is a measure of how bad things have gotten, and how quickly.

* * *

George Bush spent much of September 11 running from one rabbit hole to the next, and perhaps justifiably so. No one knew quite what the hell was happening, and it is the Secret Service's primary mission to keep the President safe at all costs. William Safire initially criticized the President for this in his column in the Times, and then backtracked a day or two later, presumably after having been given a dressing down by someone in the administration. He--and the rest of the media--unquestioningly parrotted the explanation that there was a credible threat to Air Force One, that someone had made a phone call using code words which indicated inside knowledge, and the President had no choice but to flee.

Any reasonably bright eighth grader might have perceived that this was horseshit served up on a steaming fresh bun, and in fact the administration is now backing off from the story, citing "misunderstandings" on the part of staffers. No record of any such threatening phone call can be found.

Maybe somebody realized that, while they didn't want Bush to be seen as a bumbling , frightened leader, neither did they want to suggest that the terrorists had secret code words in their possession--that, in other words, that they had somehow infiltrated the highest levels of government. Which would be the obvious implication.

* * *

As Jake Tapper writes in Salon: 'The nation is heading into a war that Bush described in his Thursday address as possibly including "covert operations, secret even in success." One military official told the Washington Post Monday that because "this is the most information-intensive war you can imagine ...We're going to lie about things." '

Winston Churchill famously said that "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies."

We have been warned. And yet, I promise you that most of us will believe what we are told, unquestioningly, obediently, blindly.

* * *

From Sam Smith:

REUTERS: International public opinion opposes a massive U.S. military strike
to retaliate for attacks on America by hijacked aircraft, according to a
Gallup poll in 31 countries whose results. Only in Israel and the United
States did a majority favor a military response against states shown to
harbor terrorists, the survey found. People questioned elsewhere preferred
to see suspected terrorists extradited and put on trial. "Around 80 percent
of Europeans and around 90 percent of South Americans favor extradition and
a court verdict. . . . Seventy-seven percent of Israelis backed military
action, while 54 percent of Americans were in favor, it said.

* * *

And this from Sam as well (more "real Americans" at work):

1) In Mesa, Arizona, Balbir Singh Sodhi, 49, an Indian gas station owner was
shot. The assailant then drove to another service station where a
Lebanese-American employee was working; he fired shots but injured no one

2) In Richmond Hill, Queens, an elderly Sikh man was beaten with a baseball
bat; two others were shot at with paintball guns.

3) In Gary, Indiana, a man in a ski mask fired more than 21 shots from a
high-powered assault rifle at Hassan Awdah, a U.S. citizen born in Yemen.

4) A turban-wearing taxi driver was attacked by a man who accused him of
being a terrorist. He was of Indian descent.

5) A car rammed into an Akron, OH Arab-owned grocery store by Jack Oueslati.

6) In Huntington, N.Y., a 75-year-old man tried to run over a Pakistani
woman in a shopping mall parking lot. The police said he screamed that he
was "doing this for my country." The man then followed the woman into a
store and threatened to kill her for "destroying my country."

7) Khaled Ksaibati, the faculty adviser for the Muslim Student Association
at the University of Wyoming described an attack on the Muslim family at a
Laramie Wal-Mart. "The people who screamed in her face wanted her to go back
to her country," he said. "This is her country. She was born here."

8) A group of demonstrators gathered outside of the Madina Masjid on First
Avenue and 11th Street in Manhattan. The mob yelled angrily and carried a
banner saying "Destroy the mosque or remove it from this place." Neighbors
shouted the crowd down as the police held them back.

9) A well-dressed young Manhattan couple yelled insults at a
Lebanese-American who was desperately searching for survivors from the arts
center he had run on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center's north tower.
"They told me, 'You should go back to your country, you f--king Arabs, we
should bomb the s--t out of you,'" said the man, Moukhtar Kocache.

10) Yasser Ahmed, manager of an Arab-owned candy and grocery store on
Broadway in Upper Manhattan, said about 10 people had come in shouting, "You
guys did it!" and other accusations.

11) One student, Basel Al-ken, whose family is from Syria, was taking his
mother to Wal-Mart one night this week. A man in a parked car turned a
laser-pointer in her face and made a throat-slitting motion with his hand.

12) Four men chased Amrik Singh, a Sikh who wears a turban, as he fled lower
Manhattan to return home to Hicksville. He jumped on a train to Brooklyn and
took off his turban and stuffed it into his briefcase.

13) The local Sikh Temple in Richmond Hill was vandalized and received
threatening phone calls.

14) A Pakistani family's house was burned down in Sacramento.

15) One man stormed into a South Seattle mosque and threatened to burn it
down. Another poured gasoline on a North Seattle mosque and tried to fire a
gun at some of its members.

16) A 57-year-old Punjabi man was shot in Yuba City, California. Several
cars of Punjabis were vandalized as well.

17) A student of either Indian or Middle Eastern origin was attacked on the
University of Pennsylvania campus. Other colleges have reported similar
stories of their students under attack.

18) The Islamic Institute of New York received a telephone call threatening
the school's 450 students. The male caller said he was going to paint the
streets with the children's blood. The school is closed, but continues to
receive several threats a day.

19) A mosque in Denton, Texas, was firebombed, and another in Lynnwood,
Wash. had its sign defaced with black paint. (New York Times: 9/14)

20) In Bridgeview, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, police stopped 300 marchers -
many of them teenagers- as they tried to march on a mosque. Marcher Colin
Zaremba, 19, told The Associated Press, "I'm proud to be American and I hate
Arabs and I always have."

21) 43 percent of Americans said they thought the attacks would make them
"personally more suspicious" of people who appear to be of Arab descent.


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