Elijah Wald

Billboard Politics

Wonder why things are going so badly in Iraq, or why President Bush's policies there still maintain a relatively high approval rating back home? A small paragraph, buried in a recent New York Times "News Analysis" can give some insight into both questions.

Discussing the worries of civilians in Baghdad, where missiles are destroying hotels and suicide bombers are killing or wounding hundreds, the Times assured its readers that, "The United States is doing everything it can to fight their fears. All over the city, the occupying authorities have put up large billboards featuring bucolic scenes of date palms arched over a riverbank. Inspirational messages are splashed over the pretty pictures. 'Baghdad is getting better,' says one.'"

This sounds like the most cynical political satire. Iraqis have lived for decades with a constant barrage of optimistic pronouncements from Saddam Hussein's government, even as they lost wars and underwent suffering from an international embargo. They are among the least likely people on earth to believe cheery billboards that are contradicted by the evidence of their own eyes and the experiences of their friends and neighbors. They know propaganda all too well and, far from being comforted, will take it as a sign that the US intends to rule them like any other authoritarian government.

Back home in America, though, optimistic pronouncements are often taken on faith. We do not expect outright lies from our leaders, or even from commercial advertising. We trust our press's freedom and basic honesty, even if we sometimes regard it as biased, and there is a general perception that any claim that receives wide coverage has been vetted to the point that "They couldn't print it if it wasn't true."

More to the point, we have become used to the idea that the only way we can get "news" is from the media. People who know that they and their friends are living worse than they did 10 years ago will turn to the papers to see how the economy is doing. People whose neighborhoods are as safe as they were in 1950 are terrified to walk the streets because of all the murders on television. People who scream that their landlord and their boss are twisting them for every penny will nod along with radio personalities who rail against controls on rents and predatory business practices. And people who are besieged by panhandlers and have to step over people sleeping on the street will nonetheless believe that even poor Americans share the highest living standards on earth.

Which is to say, it makes perfect sense for an American government to think that Iraqis will be comforted by billboards saying that everything is swell, even as they hear bombs exploding and see armored troops in their streets. American leaders are not used to a population that knows from long experience that the people giving orders and making optimistic predictions are probably not acting in its best interests.

Is it radical to suggest that the Iraqi skeptics may be right? That their eyes may indeed be more trustworthy than the billboards? Or even that Americans could learn a valuable lesson from their skepticism?

Elijah Wald is the author of "Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerillas."

A Familiar Future For Iraq

We have been hearing a lot of divergent scenarios for the outcome of the current war in Iraq. The Bush administration is predicting a new dawn of democracy and freedom. Its detractors are predicting at worst an immediate bloodbath, and at best an American occupation that slides into anarchy and civil war. But there is a third possibility that is never mentioned by either camp: That very, very little will change.

Up until now, Iraq has been ruled by a relatively efficient and modern, though brutal, secular dictatorship. Except for the inconvenient detail that this dictatorship is headed by Saddam Hussein, a man who in recent years has not been a good American client and trading partner, this is exactly the sort of government that Bush, Cheney and company would deal with most easily in the region. So why should they not leave everything exactly as it is, only without Saddam, and with America as partner-in-chief?

At the moment, the American military is carefully leaving Baghdad's power system, water lines and communications intact, and everyone seems to agree that this is because the US will shortly be running the place, and wants it to be in good shape. I suspect that our leaders' attitude toward the government is similar.

It is no wonder the US State Department has been so cool to the Iraqi exiles. Such men have no experience running the country, and in any case they are clearly troublemakers. Much more sensible to keep the Baath Party in power, perhaps with a change of name, but otherwise managing everything more or less as it has been.

This scenario explains some baffling conundrums: Why "regime change" in Iraq, rather than in any of the other vile dictatorships in the region? Easy. Iraq is uniquely equipped with a smooth-running bureaucracy that can switch headmen virtually overnight with minimal protest from anyone.

Why, as a reaction to September 11, is the US attacking the Arab government that is most hated by Osama bin Laden and the other Islamic fundamentalists? Easy. After the American victory, the Iraqi police will be hunting down "terrorists" with new zeal, side by side with the CIA.

Cynical? Of course, but that does not mean it is not good sense, looked at from the point of view of the empire-builders. "The business of America is business," and it is good business practice to keep everything running as smoothly as possible. Iraq is not like Afghanistan, an obstacle course of mountain ranges and fiercely independent warlords; it is a country that, if not too badly damaged in the fighting, can be up and running in no time.

Once the war is over, the Americans will encourage no disruptive social revolutions, no splitting up the country to provide an ethnic Kurdish homeland, and certainly no fully democratic elections that might bring Islamic fundamentalists into power. Bush has always said that he wants "regime change," but also that to him the regime consists of one man.

The message is clear, and very likely attainable: Once Saddam is gone, America will be satisfied with business as usual.

Elijah Wald is the author of "Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerillas."

The Suicide Bombers Lie

As the Middle East sinks deeper into a pit of violence and hatred, otherwise sensible people come to accept profoundly misguided ideas.

One that I have been hearing more and more frequently is the idea that there is something uniquely horrible about "suicide bombings," that whatever the Palestinians' aims, this tactic must be condemned by all decent people. The New York Times fulminates that "only the most bankrupt leadership" could allow such a "macabre, self-delusional act of ruin to pass without anguished condemnation."

The message is clear: while the Israelis have killed far more people than the Palestinians in the recent conflict, they have done so in a civilized manner, while the Palestinian killing has been barbarous. Whatever one may think of the larger claims advanced by either side, this is sick and dangerous thinking, a way of dehumanizing one side in the conflict. It recalls the dehumanizing of the suicidal, wild-eyed kamikazes, whose barbarous tactics justified the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, while the properly civilized German-Americans required no such special treatment. Not to mention the American fliers who dropped atomic bombs on Japanese civilian centers. Obviously, far more people -- virtually all of them civilians -- died in Hiroshima than from all the suicide attacks in history, but not even those of us who consider this a war crime think of the bomber pilots as maddened fanatics.

Let me be clear: there is no viler act of war than to target civilian populations, and the suicide bombers are doing just that. I am only saying that, tragically, most of the civilians killed in this century's wars have died at the hands of uniformed troops of recognized national governments, using modern technologies. When the Times condemns the fact that "there is hardly a Palestinian figure who has made clear that suicide bombing has no place in any struggle worth its name," I am forced to note that few supporters of US military aims have made it clear that, for example, building anti-personnel mines designed to shoot thousands of pellets at chest level that are made of plastic and hence indetectable by x-rays "has no place in any struggle worth its name."

It is in the nature of war, even justifiable war, that many of its tactics are disgusting. To suggest that one's opponents' tactics are uniquely vile is the most common, cliched propaganda, used by virtually all combatants -- but especially those whose moral stance is threatened by the fact that they are doing most of the killing. "Ah yes," one can say, "it is true that we are out-killing them three to one, but the deaths we cause are unavoidable collateral damage, while they are specifically targetting innocent bystanders." It can even sound sensible, this idea that intent is more important than results, unless you are the parents or loved ones of the "collaterally damaged."

The fact is that, tactically speaking, both the suicide bombers and those who wipe out entire neighborhoods with rockets and bulldozers are pursuing their aims by killing and demoralizing civilian populations. The imbalance is not one of virtue, but of power and technology. And, if there is ever going to be peace, both sides will have to face the fact that their enemies are human beings, many with blood on their hands, but not very different from themselves.

Elijah Wald (www.elijahwald.com) is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, Mass.

Why I Cannot Hold a Candle

This morning, I find three forwarded messages in my email, urging me to step outside my door with a lighted candle at a set hour tonight: "We will show the world that Americans are strong and united together against terrorism," the message says. I wish it were true.

Unfortunately, many of the people running this country are long-time supporters of terrorism, and they are among those shouting loudest for a strong and united response to the current crisis. What they mean by that is that we must all get together behind the cynical and murderous policies that got us where we are today, and they are already using this crisis as a way of favoring their agenda.

If Bush were serious about hunting down those who trained and supported Osama bin Laden, he could easily start at home. State Department and CIA officials thought bin Laden's fanatical, fundamentalist, terrorist organization would only be a problem for the Soviet Union, and now we all are paying the price.

Buried inside the second section, today's New York Times tells me that a congressional committee rushed through the appointment of John Negroponte as our ambassador to the United Nations yesterday, because we need someone to coordinate the world response to terrorism. Negroponte certainly knows plenty about terrorism, having been our man in Honduras during the height of the US-trained death squads there, supporting the mass murder of civilians as a way of breaking the will of our enemies.

On the facing page, I read that Israeli tanks are rolling into the West Bank. "Arafat is our bin Laden," Prime Minister Sharon says, appealing for solidarity. Actually, it is the suicide bombers of Hamas that are Israel's bin Laden -- the group that has become Hamas was supported by the Israeli government, because it was thought that the presence of a still more fanatical group would weaken Arafat's control.

If I believed that the United States government would take strong action to end the threat of terrorism, restrict access to weapons of mass destruction, and make the world a safer place, I would light candles, march, write, fight -- do whatever I could to support the effort. Tragically, I fear that our leaders will cynically use this crisis as an excuse to do just the opposite: to break treaties, increase arms sales, and increase the worldwide level of terror. In the next weeks, I fear massive action to restrict civil liberties in the United States, and to build up our military might.

I hope I am wrong. I hope that we will see new unity with previously hostile governments to disarm and arrest those responsible for this and other murderous actions. I hope we will not revenge the civilian deaths in New York by bombing other civilians, in other countries, in an ascending cycle that can only lead to more death here as well.

I want to do whatever I can to oppose terrorism, and that means opposing anyone who would bomb and kill innocent people in hopes of crushing the will of their leaders. The Iraqi people suffered from Saddam's dictatorship when he was a US arms client, and from American bombs when he was our enemy. The Afghanis have suffered under the Russians, under the fundamentalist guerrillas the US sponsored to oppose the Russians, and now they are in danger of being targeted again.

I will light a candle, give blood, do whatever I can to show solidarity with all those who died in this horrific attack. I will light a candle, or do whatever else I can, to try to end the cycle of terror. But I will not join an action to show America's current leaders that we are "strong and united" behind them. They are not among the victims, they are among those who brought us to this pass, and I fear that their idea of "strength" will only mean more death, fear, and suffering for all of us.


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