Thursday, May 20, 2004

Traditional Celebratory Small-Arms Fire

I just heard my new favorite phrase: "traditional celebratory small-arms fire." They were talking about a wedding party in Iraq that was attacked by American helicopters; they apparently mistook (not for the first time, and not surprisingly) the wedding party's "traditional celebratory small-arms fire" for an attack. I'm pretty cynical about the war, but I'm not taking this badly; I'm writing this one off as culture shock.

The story reminds me of PJ O'Rourke's account of the retaking of Kuwait in Gulf War I, in his book Give War a Chance. He said there was so much "traditional celebratory small-arms fire" by returning Kuwaitis that the casualties from falling bullets numbered in the hundreds.

On that topic, actually, I recommend the book. PJ O'Rourke and I differ pretty significantly on most of politics, except for our mutual bedrock of cynicism on which our convictions lie. But he's a good writer, and at this point re-reading Give War a Chance is a little like digging up a time capsule of what life and politics were like in the early 90's. I particularly enjoyed his writing about being in Berlin before and after the wall fell. His Parliament of Whores, about the corrupt, fetid pool of ooze that is Congress, was also a good read, but a little out-of-date at this point; the complexity of the corruption has grown a hundredfold, and it's approaching the point where you need a law degree (or at least an English degree) to really figure out what's going on. But it's a good read.

Speaking of congressional corruption, does anyone seriously doubt anymore that campaign contributions influence voting decisions? I didn't think it was even debatable; of course campaign contributions make votes go your way. But I keep hearing from well-intentioned, naive people who don't think there's a connection. Wake up and smell the politics!

Sunday, May 02, 2004

High ideals?

I'm amazed at the speed and organization of militant Islam; two days after 60 Minutes II aired the first pictures of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners, we're already seeing the images on recruiting literature. That's fast--in less time than it took the Bush Machine to craft a response, al Qaeda had already jumped on the images and put them to use. I am cynical, but I'm not surprised. Some of the abusers in the photographs are prison wardens in American prisons. Why would we expect them to treat The Enemy better than they treat prisoners here?

And, who's surprised by this turn of events? Whoa -- sexual abuse in prisons? Totally unheard of in the civilized world! I've thought about it, and I'm not sure which is worse: abuse by guards, or abuse by one's fellow prisoners. But abuse by the guards is getting more press than abuse of either type here. Maybe that's because it's political. Maybe the abuse here is tolerated because prison isn't supposed to be pleasant, and those who make the rules aren't planning on ever spending time in that kind of prison. Or maybe it's just not news here; prison abuse is practically a long-standing tradition in America.

I'm waiting for the first editorial cartoon with a picture of a torture chamber at Abu Grahib, a sign on the wall reading, "Under New Management". The irony of Bush's speech a year ago, talking about Saddam's torture chambers being closed, isn't lost on many people here.

Or overseas, for that matter. I actually am patriotic. I enjoy America, and I'm happy to live here, and I think that there are wonderful things about our system of government. But that doesn't mean I'm not allowed to criticize its flaws, or dislike the current administration. And, in a patriotic sense, I'm embarrassed for my country. I think that the best thing America and Americans can do is to be an example for the rest of the world. We have a lot of things that work here, and we need to show the rest of the world our good side. We need to be the higher standard: politically, ethically, and morally. That's what the prison abuse photos cost us: we can no longer claim that Right is on our side. Sure, terrorism is a dirty business. But we can't let that excuse our own rolling in the metaphorical mud. Even if it's easier to fight terror by adopting their methods, we can't allow ourselves to do that. And, parenthetically, they say that at least 70% of the people in Abu Grahib were wrongly imprisoned.