Disentangling the key players in Iraq

To make better sense of what is going on currently in Iraq, we need to identify the major players. Everyone is by now is familiar with the Shia-Sunni religious divide in Islam, one of those hair-splitting and absurd enmities between sects that plague religions. The extreme devotion of each of these groups to their particular form of religion, and their willingness to see members of the ‘other’ side as an enemy, is typical of the insanity of the tribal mentality. We now see a process by which militant members of each group are seeking to drive wedges between them even deeper to the extent of eliminating mixed-residence regions. Already it is reported that 10 of the 23 mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad have become exclusively Shia. So the Sunni faction of the insurgency is fighting the US while at the same time attacking the rival Shia, or defending the Sunnis from the Shia, depending on your point of view.

But a complicating factor that is emerging is that there is an important split within the Shia group that makes this into a three-way conflict.

One of the major Shia political groupings is the SCIRI (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) which has its own armed militia called the Badr Brigade. The SCIRI group, led by cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has long been affiliated with Iran and, according to A. K. Gupta writing in Z Magazine (February 2007), is conspiring to form a Shia ‘super-region’ in southern Iraq adjoining Iran, where the major oil reserves are concentrated. When Saddam Hussein was in power, SCIRI leaders spent their years in exile in Iran and were recognized as the Iraqi government-in-exile by Iranian clerics. Also, the Badr brigade was formed and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The other major Shia group is the more publicized (at least in the US) one led by the cleric Muqtada al Sadr and which also has its own armed militia called the Mehdi Army. This group has historically not been close to Iran and in fact has opposed increased Iranian influence in Iraq. Furthermore, Sadr has great credibility in Iraq as a nationalist. As Patrick Cockburn writes, Muqtada’s father and two brothers were fierce opponents of Saddam Hussein and were murdered by him because they were perceived as threats, and while many other Iraqi leaders left for exile, Muqtada al Sadr stayed behind. Like his father, he was angry at the US because the economic sanctions on Iraq by the US had brought ruin to the people of his country. All these factors give him an immense nationalistic credibility.

So given that the US considers Iran part of the ‘axis of evil’ and is currently making warlike noises against it, if the US had to choose between allying itself with the Iranian-backed SCIRI and the nationalist Sadr group, you would think that it would support Sadr. But you would be wrong. Every indication is that an important part of the surge strategy is to crush Sadr politically to the extent of even killing him, and destroying his Mehdi army militarily. Why? Because as a fierce nationalist who opposes all foreign occupation, including that of the US, he represents a more immediate threat to US. His group in the Iraqi parliament has managed to get almost half of that body to sign a petition calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. Since, as I have argued before, the US is clearly intent on occupying Iraq permanently, Sadr and all he represents has to be destroyed, since it seems hard to co-opt him to be fully subservient to US interests.

So what has emerged is a de facto alliance between the US and the Badr brigade against the Mehdi army. The Badr brigade has deeply infiltrated the Iraqi military and police forces under the patronage of the Interior Minister and are operating ‘death squads’ that operate with impunity, carrying out attacks on Sunnis and the followers of Sadr, with the US giving them political and even military cover.

So as part of the current offensive, we can expect to see a full-fledged assault on Sadr’s stronghold in what is known as ‘Sadr City’ in Baghdad, an enclave of about 2 million people. What happens then depends on the response of the Mehdi army. On two previous occasions in 2003 and 2004 when the US army went into Sadr City, the Mehdi army directly confronted it and received heavy losses. Since then, the militias seem to have learned the lesson that it is better to fight the US indirectly. The next time the US confronts the Mehdi army in Sadr city (which is likely to happen very soon or some reports indicate is already underway) what is likely to happen is that the Mehdi army will melt away and not offer much direct resistance. Sadr himself, expecting to be targeted for killing has reportedly gone into hiding.This would result in a lull in the level of violence but it is unlikely to be permanent as long as the basic instability exists in the political structure of that country.

Another strategy being adopted is for the militia members to sign up to join the Iraqi security forces that the US is creating and training and arming. That way, they can gain access to weapons and supplies and intelligence as well. But this results in the Iraqi military not serving the government (shaky though it is) but advancing the interests of whatever sectarian groups make up its caadres.

As a result, the security forces are not seen by the population at large as protecting the people but as extensions of the death squads that are terrorizing the population. It has also led to criminals and thugs getting access to the Iraqi security forces and acting with increasing impunity such as this case where they force their way into people’s hopes, brutalize them, and take their valuables.

So in a nutshell, the US strategy seems to be to ally itself with one faction of the Shias (the SCIRI and its Badr Brigades) to try and crush both the Sunni insurgency and the Shia opposition led by Muqtada al Sadr and his militia, the Mehdi army. Meanwhile, the US is taking an increasingly confrontational tone with Iran, which is the very sponsor of the US allies in Iraq, and it is not clear to what extent the US’s other allies in the region (Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan all of whom are Sunni) will tolerate the assault on their Sunni kinsfolk in Iraq. Bush seems to be trying to appease them by playing up the threat posed by the Shia Iranians

It seems as if the US is succumbing to the danger that befalls all occupying armies when they stay too long and that is getting more and more entangled in local politics, forging short-term alliances of convenience and getting mixed up in shifting regional conflicts.

This is the mess that the US finds itself in, all of which will likely lead to long-term complications.

POST SCRIPT: Another Johnny Cash classic

This song Sunday morning coming down has some wonderful lyrics.

The Spring of Our Discontent

As spring approaches in the northern hemisphere, we had better brace ourselves for some bad news in the various wars that the US is currently involved in.

In Afghanistan, as is well known by now, the Taliban has its strongholds in the northwest frontier territories of Pakistan that borders southern Afghanistan. The Pakistani government has pretty much relinquished any attempt to control this area and has left it under the control of the local warlords, many of whom have long-standing ties, ethnic and even familial, with the Taliban. This is rugged, mountainous territory and it is believed that the Taliban has been regrouping and strengthening its cadres in that region and that as the snow thaws, it is expected that cross-border infiltration will increase leading to a spike in violence. It is clear that the Afghan government in Kabul and the US and NATO forces in that country are waiting to see what is going to happen.

Furthermore, it is now reported that after being disorganized and fragmented and rudderless for awhile, al Qaeda leaders are rebuilding their operations in that same region, re-establishing a chain of command with their loose federation of foot-soldiers around the world.

Meanwhile, we have the escalation of US troops in Iraq (especially in Baghdad) along with the appointment of a new commander of the forces in that country General David Petraeus. Petraeus is a student of counter-insurgency, being the main person responsible for writing the manual that is being used to train US troops. He has also been very adroit at self-promotion, using as his main vehicle reporter Michael Gordon of the New York Times, the very reporter who jointly authored with now-discredited Judith Miller all the fantastic allegations about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that led to public acceptance of Bush’s illegal attack on that country. Gordon is now doing exactly the same thing with the escalating rhetoric against Iran (more about that later).

The shape of the new Iraq operation is becoming clear. Petraeus seems to be a believer in a ‘clear and hold’ strategy, which he carried out in his earlier stint in Iraq where he was in charge of the Mosul region. In this strategy, you divide up a region into small units, then send in troops door-to-door to ferret out fighters and weapons caches. Once a region is cleared, then you move to the next region while stationing enough troops in the cleared region to prevent re-entry by the insurgent forces. While Petraeus managed to get favorable publicity for his approach to that city, the plan itself failed and “the town reverted to insurgent control within hours of his division’s departure.”

But this approach is going to be repeated in Baghdad, with the city being divided into 11 zones:

The soldiers will aim to create mini “green zones” – cut-down versions of the area in the capital where US and British officials, and the Iraqi government, take refuge – guarded by checkpoints, sandbags and barbed wire. Residents would be issued with ID badges, and their every entry and exit logged.

To do this the US and Iraqi government forces will have to win back these areas from the militias. In particular they will have to take on the Shia fighters, many of them government backed, who have been accused of operating death squads.

The response of insurgents and guerillas to this type of US strategy is fairly obvious to anyone who has followed this type of warfare. They will likely not directly challenge the much better armed and organized US troops and will move away from that region and either launch attacks elsewhere or lie low until the occupying troops eventually leave. This is always the problem faced by an occupying foreign force. The local fighters know that you have to leave at some point and the question then becomes who has the most patience.

The key to the success of this strategy lies in two things. One is to have enough troops to both clear new areas while holding on to the old ones. The second is that since a key goal of insurgencies is to create instability, to keep the troops in place long enough to allow a normal life to develop in those areas, thus causing the insurgents’ momentum to dissipate and become discouraged.

How many troops are enough for this? Classic counter-insurgency theory has a rule of thumb that says that in an occupation you need one soldier for every 50 civilians in the region. This works out to 500,000 troops for the Iraq population of over 26 million. This is the basis on which former US Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki stated in 2003 that the US would need about “several hundred thousand” troops to occupy Iraq, for which prediction he was eased out of office since that was not the answer wanted by the Bush administration. Baghdad alone has a population of about 5 million, which would require 100,000 troops, and yet currently there are about only 15,000 combat troops there. And the numbers are worse than it looks since the 50-to-1 estimate of troops is based on a fairly peaceful occupation, not a raging insurgency/civil war like what we are seeing. Clearly even the current ‘surge’ is not enough.

Recall also that even though there are about 150,000 US troops in Iraq, only about a third of them are actual combat troops, the rest being support personnel (engineers, mechanics, cooks, medics, clerks, and the like). This ‘tooth-to-tail’ ratio of combat troops to support personnel is a surprisingly hard figure to pin down, which is why estimates of how many troops are necessary seem to vary wildly. But under all calculations, the numbers currently in place are insufficient and already there are hints of a further escalation in the works to meet this deficiency. This is also why re-creation of the Iraqi military is such a high priority for the US, since there will never be enough US troops for a successful counter-insurgency.

As more US troops go on patrol and engage with the insurgents as part of this clear and hold strategy, they are likely to suffer additional casualties from snipers and IEDs. But even allowing for this, it is quite likely (for reasons to be given in the next posting) that the current policy will produce a short-term reduction in the overall levels of violence, as the forces opposed to the occupation scatter to parts outside of Baghdad and regroup. This will likely occur soon and extend into the spring and the lull will be interpreted by the Bush administration as a vindication of its ‘surge’ strategy. The question is whether this lull can last and what political strategy the Bush administration is pursuing in parallel. And this is where things start to get messy.

Next: Disentangling the key players in Iraq

POST SCRIPT: I Walk the line

Johnny Cash had a great voice. Here he is singing his big hit I walk the line.

This is a difficult song because each verse shifts to a higher key, until the final verse is back in the original key. Between verses you can sometimes hear him humming the starting note so that he comes in correctly.

Peter O’Toole

Seeing as I have been spending my time watching old films, for the first time in some years I have not seen any of the films that have been nominated for this year’s Academy Awards. But that does not mean that I don’t have a preference in at least one category, and that is for best actor. At the risk of offending purists who believe that the awards should be based strictly on the performance in the film for which the person has been nominated, I hope, for purely sentimental reasons, that Peter O’Toole wins the best actor award this coming Sunday for Venus, just because he is one of the greatest actors ever.

I have been a big fan of Peter O’Toole ever since I saw him in the stunning Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which was his big break as a star. I watched the film again recently when it was re-released as a DVD in the ‘director’s cut’ version. The power of the film can be measured by the fact that it runs almost four hours long and for some reason I started watching it at about nine at night, thinking I would stop halfway and continue the next day, since I usually am in bed before 11:00pm. But once I had started, I just could not tear myself away and had to see it through to the end, hardly noticing the time. It is undoubtedly director David Lean’s masterpiece, and O’Toole’s performance was amazing. I wish it could be shown on the big screen again (perhaps at the Cleveland Cinematheque?) because Lean’s panoramic sweeps in the magnificent desert scenes really deserve to be seen in their full splendor.

After that, there were other fine performances from O’Toole in dramas such as Becket (1964), The Lion in Winter (1968), and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969). And if you want to see an absolutely brilliant satire of the hypocrisy and decadence of the British upper classes, The Ruling Class (1972) cannot be beaten.

O’Toole also showed a deft touch in light comedies like How to Steal a Million (1966), and that very silly and funny film What’s New, Pussycat (1965).

After a period of decline, partly due to his heavy drinking, he returned to give an acclaimed performance in The Stunt Man (1980) (which is one of the few good films of his that I have not seen yet but will soon) and a wonderful performance in My Favorite Year (1982) where he played an aging, drunken, erratic, womanizing, fading star of swashbuckling films (supposed to be based on the life of actor Errol Flynn) who is invited to appear on a live TV variety show in the 1954. The show’s producers assign a young writer to watch him like a hawk to make sure that he arrives on the set sober and on time and his desperate attempts to rein in the star’s penchant to get into trouble forms the basis of the film. O’Toole clearly relished playing a caricature of himself and this made for a very endearing film.

When his old drinking friend Richard Harris died, O’Toole was considered to take over his role of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. He was eventually passed over for Michael Gambon and although Gambon is a fine actor, I think O’Toole would have been better suited. O’Toole brings with him an air of frailty and yet wiry strength, sternness and yet with a mischievous gleam in his eyes, and a voice that can be soft and yet commanding. When I read the Potter books, the mental image I had of Dumbledore matched O’Toole almost exactly. Gambon seems just a little too vigorous and robust for my tastes.

Although O’Toole has been nominated for an Academy Award for best actor seven times before (Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, The Lion in Winter, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man, and My Favorite Year) he has never won.

It is time for him to get his due.

POST SCRIPT: And now, awards for the Bush Administration

Meanwhile, on the subject of awards, there is no question that the current Bush Administration can sweep the historical awards for politics. I think that there can be no doubt that members of the current administration are the clear winners in the following categories:

Worst President Ever: George W. Bush
Worst Vice-President Ever: Dick Cheney
Worst Secretary of Defense Ever: Donald Rumsfeld
Worst Secretary of State Ever: Condoleeza Rice
Worst National Security Advisor Ever: Condoleeza Rice

Rice winning in two separate categories is a record unlikely to be ever broken.

Perhaps these awards should be called the Bushies in their honor.

How low Bush has sunk in the public esteem can be seen in the most recent results of the Pew poll (scroll down) that asks people (without prompts or a list of options) to suggest one word that they feel describes Bush. It seems like a free-association test.

The general dissatisfaction with the president also is reflected in the single-word descriptions that people use to describe their impression of the president. While the public has consistently offered a mix of positive and negative terms to describe Bush, the tone of the words used turned more negative in early 2006 and remains the case today. In the current survey, nearly half (47%) describe Bush in negative terms, such as “arrogant,” “idiot,” and “ignorant.” Just 27% use words that are clearly positive, such as “honest,” “good,” “integrity,” and “leader.”

As was the case a year ago, the word mentioned more frequently than any other is “incompetent.” By comparison, from 2000 through 2005 “honest” was the word most frequently volunteered description of the president.

The detailed results of the poll over the period 2004-2006 can be seen here. One thing that I noticed was that the description ‘Christian,’ which usually had a fairly good showing in the past, has disappeared completely in the latest list. I am not sure what that means.

The odd response to global warming warnings

The recent release of the latest IPCC report on global warming gives a comprehensive review of the current state of knowledge and represent an overwhelming scientific consensus on the nature of the problem confronting us.

The report’s conclusions paint a gloomy picture:

The report states in unequivocal terms that the climate is warming globally and that since the middle of the 20th century, human industrial activity – the burning of fossil fuels and, to a lesser extent, land-use changes – is warming’s main driver. Since the last report in 2001, confidence in that statement has risen from “likely” (greater than a 66 percent chance) to “very likely” (greater than 90 percent).

• Temperatures are “likely” to rise 2 degrees to 4.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, if CO2 concentrations reach twice their preindustrial level. Within that range, the most likely result is 3 degrees C (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit). That additional warmth will distribute itself unevenly, with the highest increases in the Arctic and progressively smaller increases farther south.

• Sea levels could rise by century’s end from 28 to 58 centimeters (11 to 23 inches) above 1999 levels globally. That’s a narrower range than the IPCC offered in 2001, when it projected a range of 9 to 88 centimeters. Even if CO2 concentrations could be stabilized at twice preindustrial levels by 2100, thermal expansion of the oceans alone could raise sea levels an additional 1 to 3 feet by 2300. But recent research also suggests that the Greenland ice sheet is losing mass faster than expected, leaving open the possibility that sea-level increases will be higher if the melting trend continues to accelerate. If Greenland’s ice cap continues to lose mass over the next 1,000 years, the entire ice cap would vanish, raising sea levels by some 23 feet.

What is interesting is the response of the global warming deniers. The Guardian newspaper reports that the so-called ‘think tank’ the American Enterprise Institute is actually trying to bribe scientists to dispute the report. Funded with $1.6 million from Exxon-Mobil, the AEI is offering scientists $10,000 each “for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).” They are also willing to pay for travel and other perks. (Stephen Colbert comments on the bribes.)

Ben Stewart of Greenpeace is quoted as saying: “The AEI is more than just a thinktank, it functions as the Bush administration’s intellectual Cosa Nostra. They are White House surrogates in the last throes of their campaign of climate change denial. They lost on the science; they lost on the moral case for action. All they’ve got left is a suitcase full of cash.”

That sounds like an accurate description to me.

The Guardian report also says that an Exxon-funded organization in Canada will launch a review that will challenge the IPCC report. One of the people involved is Nigel Bellamy. Some of you may recall an earlier posting of mine that discussed how his sloppy work was exposed by George Monbiot.

There is one thing about the global warming debate that puzzled me and that is the vehemence of the opposition by some ordinary people to the idea. I can understand why the big emissions-producing industries and their allies in the Bush administration are fighting the idea that global warming is occurring. They do not want to take any action that might cut into their profits.

But why are some ordinary people so emphatically opposed to this finding of the scientific community? It is not like evolution or stem-cell research where science is treading on religious toes. As far as I can tell, there are no Biblical issues here, no eleventh commandment to the flock to, yeah verily, go out and emit CO2 in abundance until the glaciers melteth into the seas.

I am not talking about people who are simply skeptical about the scientific case being made that global warming is a real threat and that it is largely caused by human activity. That kind of skepticism is understandable but does not usually create the level of passion that is characteristic of the global warming deniers.

On global warming you find what seems to be ordinary people going out of their way to ridicule the emerging scientific consensus. This is surprising because most ordinary people do not go to great lengths to ridicule those areas in which there is scientific consensus. You do not find passionate opposition to, say, scientific community suggestions on reducing transfats or warning about the dangers of smoking.

It is almost as if the members of the public who are skeptics think that the scientific community is trying to pull a fast one on them. But why would they think this? There is no advantage to scientists in global warming. Scientists get no benefit from warning about the danger. At most they can be accused of being over-cautious.

So why this unusual level of hostility to the idea that global warming might be real? Is this coming from people who are angry with scientists about other things that do offend their religious sensibilities and are now out to attack anything that scientists say that might affect their lives? Or are these people part of an “astroturf” (i.e. fake grass roots) movement funded by the oil industry and polluting companies? Or are these people who, for ideological reasons, will side with Bush and big corporations come what may, whatever the issue? Or is there some other reason that I am missing?

These are not rhetorical questions. I am genuinely puzzled as to why this is so. Any suggestions?

POST SCRIPT: Talk by Israeli academic and peace activist

Jeff Halper, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University and an Israeli peace activist, will be talking today at Case. The talk is free and open to the public.

When: 4:30pm, Monday, February 19, 2007
Where: Clark 309

I have written before about Professor Halper’s last visit to Case in May 2005 and how his talk was a revelation to me about what was happening in the occupied territories.

The flyer for his visit this time says:

Dr. Jeff Halper, the Coordinating Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions was a 2006 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is an Israeli-American peace activist, professor of anthropology, distinguished author and internationally acclaimed speaker. The 3rd edition of his popular book, “Obstacles to Peace: A Reframing of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” was released in 2005. Halper has forged a new mode of Israeli peace activity based on nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to the Israeli Occupation. Through its resistance to the demolition of Palestinian homes and other manifestations of the Occupation, including the rebuilding of demolished homes as acts of political solidarity, ICAHD has developed a relationship of trust and close cooperation with Palestinian organizations. Believing that civil society and governmental forces must be mobilized if a just peace is to emerge in Israel/Palestine, Jeff also directs ICAHD’s extensive program of international advocacy. His popular book Obstacles to Peace is to be followed by a forthcoming work: An Israeli in Palestine: Reframing the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Pluto Press).

The CliffsNotes Bible

In my house we have something called The Children’s Bible which we got for the children when they were young. I flipped through it when preparing the earlier series of posts on the historicity of the Bible and compared it with a real Bible and noticed some interesting features.

As might be expected from a book aimed at children, it skips over the gruesome details of murder, genocide, sex, incest, and so on. It also understandably omits things that are not graphic but are still truly disturbing, such as the story of Abraham’s willingness to kill his own child Isaac at god’s command. One can see how the thought that your own parent might decide to kill you on god’s command might give a child nightmares. Hardly a suitable bedtime story.

The Children’s Bible is essentially a CliffsNotes of the Bible, giving just the main outlines of the Biblical stories. What I found interesting is that what it talks about corresponds pretty much to what most adults vaguely know about the Bible. In other words, adults never seem to have outgrown the understanding of the Bible they acquire as children.
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The Iraq dilemma

I have written before of the similarities between Vietnam and Iraq for American military involvement. Some (including Bush) have used the similarity to draw what I believe are false conclusions, to argue that the reason that the US was defeated in Vietnam was because the politicians and the public lost their nerve and caved. This is the argument given now for the current escalation with the increase in troops.

Of course, no historical analogy is perfect and there are differences as well. But this analysis last month by Martin Jacques in the British newspaper The Guardian struck me as being very perceptive and worth quoting extensively.

But the Iraq moment is far more dangerous for the US than the Vietnam moment. Although one of the key justifications for the Vietnam war was to prevent the spread of communism, the US defeat was to produce nothing of the kind: apart from the fact that Cambodia and Laos became embroiled, the effects were essentially confined to Vietnam. There were no wider political repercussions in east Asia: ironically, it was China that was to invade North Vietnam in 1979 (and deservedly got a bloody nose).

The regional consequences of the Iraq imbroglio are, in comparison, immediate, profound and far-reaching. The civil war threatens to unhinge more or less the entire Middle East. The neoconservative strategy – to remake the region single-handedly (with the support of Israel, of course) – has been undermined by its own hubris. The American dilemma is patent in some of the key recommendations of the ISG report: to involve Iran and Syria in any Iraqi settlement (including the return of the Golan Heights to Syria) and to seek a new agreement between Israel and Palestine. In short, it proposes a reversal of the key strands of Bush’s foreign policy.
. . .
Far from the US being in the ascendant, deeper trends have moved in the opposite direction. The US might enjoy overwhelming military advantage, but its relative economic power, which in the long run is almost invariably decisive, is in decline. The interregnum after the cold war, far from being the prelude to a new American age, was bearing the signs of what is now very visible: the emergence of a multipolar world. By misreading global trends, the Bush administration’s embrace of unilateralism not only provoked the Iraq disaster but also hastened American decline.

An increasingly multipolar world requires an entirely different kind of US foreign policy: far from being unilateralist, it necessitates a complex form of power-sharing on both a global and regional basis. This is not only the opposite to neoconservative unilateralism, it is also entirely different from the simplicities of superpower cooperation and rivalry in the bipolar world of the cold war. The new approach is implicit in the ISG report, which recognises that any resolution of the Iraq crisis depends on the involvement of Iran and Syria. Elements of this approach are already apparent on the Korean peninsula and in Latin America. The ramifications of the Iraq moment will surely influence US foreign policy for decades to come.

The US is now digging itself into a deeper and deeper hole in Iraq, and making matters even worse (if that were possible) by confronting Iran. What worries me is that when a situation gets desperate, desperate people do foolish things. One does not get the sense that this administration is the kind that, when faced with overwhelming evidence that its military policy is not working, will switch to a diplomatic effort. Instead one gets the sense that they will up the stakes, seeking to burst out of the prison of their own creation by an overwhelming show of force.

And the current “surge” plan and the rhetoric about Iran all give me the uneasy feeling that we are about to witness some unpleasant events in the very near future, as suggested by this Tom Toles cartoon.


POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity and Lucifer

Mr. Deity tries to mend fences with a seriously ticked-off Lucifer.

The Western and the Courtroom

In my pursuit of seeing all the old classic films, I recently watched Stagecoach, the 1939 film directed by John Ford that catapulted John Wayne from B-movie actor to a major star. This film signaled the beginning of the glory days of the western film, a period that lasted until the 50s, though the ‘spaghetti westerns’ of Sergio Leone gave them a brief resurgence in the 1960s.
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Taking the baton from Molly Ivins

Journalist Molly Ivins died of cancer last week at the age of 62. I was a regular reader of her monthly columns in The Progressive magazine. There have been many marvelous remembrances of her all over the media. Paul Krugman had a good article on Molly’s ability to see right through bogus arguments, and nowhere was this skill more visible than in her columns about the Iraq war. As Krugman says:
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Talking to those with whom you disagree

I watched the documentary What is said about. . .Arabs and Terrorism on Tuesday and Wednesday. Director Bassam Haddad, a professor of political science at St. Joseph’s University, had a good mix of interviews from America, Europe and the Middle East. It was especially interesting to hear the views of a spectrum of regular people, intellectuals, journalists, and activists from the Middle East, since we rarely get to hear those voices here. Listening to them, you are made aware of the common humanity that binds us all and transcends ethnic and religious divides. You realized that there was strong agreement across the board on some basic ideas of what kinds of actions were justified and what were deplorable.

But Haddad also highlighted the fact that the nature of the discourse on the topic of terrorism is very different in the west from that in the rest of the world. It even starts with the lack of east-west consensus on what the word means. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for labeling an act as ‘terrorism’ and the perpetrators as ‘terrorists’? Does it depend on who the perpetrators are? The nature of the victims? The nature of the act? The motive behind the act? In the absence of such agreement, the word ‘terrorism’ has become used to denote not some well-defined quality, but as a pejorative label to discredit the actions of those whom we dislike.

One important distinction that was highlighted was that in the west, terrorism is seen exclusively as the actions of individuals or sub-national groups, while elsewhere terrorism by nations is also included in the mix.

We know that many policymakers refuse to talk to people on the ‘other’ side, claiming that it would give them a legitimacy they do not deserve. Haddad used an interesting technique for creating a dialogue between sides that would not normally talk to each other. What he did was to use film as an intermediary to create a dialogue. He would interview someone, say a spokesperson from Hizballah or Hamas, then fly to the US and show that film interview to someone from (say) the American Enterprise Institute (a pro-war ‘think tank’) and then film their response. Then he would fly back and show the response to the original speaker and get the response to the response, and so on. As viewers of the final film, we could watch a person watch the interview of the ‘other’ person, then Haddad would stop the film, and then the person would respond.

Watching the two sides engage each other via film, even if they often spoke through each other and did not seem to, or want to, understand what the other person was saying, was the best thing about the documentary.

Watching it, I realized how impoverished the political dialogue is in the media here. I think everyone would understand much better what the issues were if the spokespersons for Hamas and Hizballeh were on the talk shows here, and had their writings published on the op-ed pages to present their positions, so that viewers and readers could judge for themselves what the merits or defects of their arguments were. Instead we are treated patronizingly, and get their positions second-hand, having other people tell us what Hamas and Hizballah represent. It is as if we had to be shielded from them.

al-Jazeera and other Middle Eastern news outlets routinely have high American officials such as the Secretary of State on their shows to give the American point of view directly to the population in that region. Why cannot the same thing be done here with those groups that represent important constituencies in the Middle East? And yet, even al-Jazeera English TV cannot get access to the basic cable services here. Clearly the news media here practice a form of self-censorship that hinders deeper understanding. Although it would be perfectly defensible for a news media outlet to have representatives of Hamas and Hizballah on their shows, this happens far too rarely for the views of those groups to be well understood by the American public.

The people in the documentary were willing to talk to the opposition via an intermediary even though they might not want to be in the same room and talk directly. This strikes me as a meaningless distinction. This unwillingness to talk directly to people with whom you disagree, especially concerning grave issues of war and peace, is something I find hard to understand.

I recall a time when I was an undergraduate in Sri Lanka when the students were agitated over an unresolved issue with the university administration. We were planning on striking over an issue and I was a proponent of this action. (Student strikes are not an unusual phenomenon in Sri Lankan universities.) Before the final vote on whether to strike, I suggested at an open meeting of the student body that we invite the University President to appear before the student body to make his case. Some student leaders opposed this suggestion, arguing that the President was a clever person, had a charming personality, and was a smooth talker (all of which was true), who might win over the students and convince them not to go on strike.

I responded that that was a ridiculous position to take. If we could be so easily swayed, that meant that our case was weak to begin with and we should not go on strike anyway. So a vote was taken as to whether to invite the President. The student body was overwhelmingly of the opinion that they could judge the President’s arguments for themselves and did not need us as intermediaries, and the vote was yes. The President accepted our invitation, came and spoke, and we had a cordial debate on the pros and cons of the issue. Eventually the students voted to go on strike anyway. Soon after, the President and the University Senate accepted the student position and the issue was resolved peacefully and quickly, with both sides negotiating a compromise. I felt that this result was obtained partly due to the fact that the two opposing sides had listened to each other and understood the issues much better than before, and were thus able to better understand the other’s position and arrive at a workable solution

I simply don’t understand the basis for the position that you should keep certain people out of the discussion. While some people may disagree with the positions taken by Hamas and Hizballah, there is no question that they are major players in the Middle East and command the support of millions of people. They are also members of their respective governments. It is silly not to talk with them and listen to them. When you eliminate negotiations, when ‘the other’ is excluded from the discussion, violence becomes inevitable.

POST SCRIPT: Happy Birthday, Charlie!

Today is the 198th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. To celebrate it, you can see the film A Flock of Dodos by filmmaker Randy Olson which looks at the debate in Kansas over evolution versus “intelligent-design.” The link takes you to amusing trailer for the film.

When: Monday, February 12, 2007, 6:00 p.m.
Where: Goodyear Auditorium, Clapp Hall 108, Case Western Reserve University.

The film is free and open to the public. For more details, see here.

There is now a website containing Darwin’s entire collection of works. (Thanks to Ross Duffin for telling me about this site). Here is a BBC news clip about this project.

The history of jury nullification

The history of juries nullifying laws is very interesting. In yesterday’s post I discussed the celebrated case of John Peter Zenger. But there’s lots more. As Doug Linder writes:

Jury nullification appeared at other times in our history when the government has tried to enforce morally repugnant or unpopular laws. In the early 1800s, nullification was practiced in cases brought under the Alien and Sedition Act. In the mid 1800s, northern juries practiced nullification in prosecutions brought against individuals accused of harboring slaves in violation of the Fugitive Slave Laws. And in the Prohibition Era of the 1930s, many juries practiced nullification in prosecutions brought against individuals accused of violating alcohol control laws.

More recent examples of nullification might include acquittals of “mercy killers,” including Dr. Jack Kevorkian, and minor drug offenders.

Of course, not all nullifications advance justice and the rights of individuals. As Linder points out there are “negative applications including some notorious cases in which all-white southern juries in the 1950s and 1960s refused to convict white supremacists for killing blacks or civil rights workers despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt.” I am not sure if this constitutes nullification since, as I understand it, true nullification involves refusal to convict because of a belief that the law is unjust, not because one simply wants, for whatever reason, to see the accused go free. But nonetheless, recognizing the rights of juries to nullify laws does carry with it the risk that juries will acquit for less noble reasons.

Perhaps the most celebrated case of jury nullification was back in 1670 in England when William Penn, the Quaker, was accused of preaching to an assembly in a public street, the building where they usually met having been closed by the authorities. William Mead was accused of conspiring with Penn to create a ‘tumult’ and thus both were accused of being in violation of the law prohibiting such actions. The proceedings at the Old Bailey, which were recorded in almost verbatim form by an observer, gives a fascinating account of the trial.

Penn’s defense was that he was merely seeking to assemble with other believers to worship god, not seeking to create a riot, and he was unshakeable in asserting this. The fact that there were several hundred people in the street creating such noise that he could barely be heard was not questioned, so technically he had violated the law prohibiting creating ‘tumults’ in a public place. In terms of the law and the facts, the prosecution pretty much had a slam-dunk case.

It was clear from the start that the judge (who was the Mayor) and the court recorder (who is what we now call the prosecutor) were extremely hostile to the defendants, subjecting them to various indignities. It seems that the courtroom was crowded and the proceedings were boisterous, with both Penn and Mead conducting their own defense with so much vigor and cleverness that Penn was accused by the recorder of being a “saucy”, “impertinent”, and “troublesome fellow.”

At one point Penn was ordered to be taken away because of his arguments irritated the prosecution, and while being led away made this stirring speech about the need to protect fundamental liberties: “[I]s this justice or true judgment? Must I therefore be taken away because I plead for the fundamental laws of England? However, this I leave upon your consciences, who are of the jury (and my sole judges,) that if these ancient fundamental laws, which relate to liberty and property, (and are not limited to particular persuasions in. matters of religion) must not be indispensably maintained and observed, who can say he hath right to the coat upon his back? Certainly our liberties are openly to be invaded, our wives to be ravished, our children slaved, our families ruined, and our estates led away in triumph, by every sturdy beggar and malicious informer, as their trophies, but our (pretended) forfeits for conscience sake.”

After Penn had challenged the case made by the prosecution, the judge removed the prisoners and charged the jury to look at only the facts of the case. But Penn shouted out a final appeal to the jury as he was being led away: “I appeal to the jury who are my Judges, and this great assembly, whether the proceedings of the court are not most arbitrary, and void of all law, in offering to give the jury their charge in the absence of the prisoners; I say it is directly opposite to, and destructive of the undoubted right of every English prisoner, as Coke, in the 2 Instit. 29. on the chap. of Magna Charta.”

Penn’s appeals to the jury must have worked because despite pressure from the judge to achieve unanimity, the jury returned after about ninety minutes with what we would now call a hung verdict, in which eight found the defendants guilty but four wanted to acquit. After scolding the four dissenting jury members, the judge sent them back to their room with instructions to come up with a unanimous decision. After considerable time they did, and the verdict on Penn spoken by the foreman was “Guilty of speaking in Grace-church street.” This was a mere statement of fact and not a guilty verdict of an actual offence. The judge wanted them to convict the prisoners of causing a riot and he was furious at the jury’s seeming evasion but the foreman refused to say anything more than what he had said earlier.

The judge and recorder then scolded the jury and said that they could not accept their statement as a verdict and that the jury would not be released from duty until they came back with the verdict that they wanted. The jury was then sent them back to the deliberation room again but returned after half an hour with the same verdict: “We the jurors, hereafter named, do find William Penn to be Guilty of speaking or preaching to an assembly, met together in Gracechurch-street.”

The judge and recorder were enraged and the recorder issued this threat: “Gentlemen, you shall not be dismissed till we have a verdict that the court will accept; and you shall be locked up, without meat, drink, fire, and tobacco; you shall not think thus to abuse the court; we will have a verdict, by the help of God, or you shall starve for it.”

The jurors were then locked up and not even allowed to have chamber pots or to go out to the bathroom so that they ended in their room for the night hungry and thirsty and cold and surrounded by their own excrement.

The next morning the jury was called in and the foreman gave the unanimous verdict: “William Penn is Guilty of speaking in Gracechurch-Street.” The judge prompted: “To an unlawful assembly?” but the foreman refused to add anything to what he had said earlier. This caused an uproar in the court.

The judge and recorder again threatened the jury with starvation if they failed to bring in the “proper” verdict. The recorder was so disgusted with the jury that he wished that England could adopt the highly efficient Spanish Inquisition, then currently in vogue in the rest of Europe, saying: “Till now I never understood the reason of the policy and prudence of the Spaniards, in suffering the inquisition among them: And certainly it will never be well with us, till something like unto the Spanish inquisition be in England.” But the jury foreman would not be swayed and only said: “We have given in our Verdict, and all agreed to it; and if we give in another, it will be a force upon us to save our lives.”

The judge ordered them locked up in prison again for another day under the same onerous conditions. The next day when the jury was brought in, they had a new verdict: Not guilty for both Penn and Mead.

Needless to say the judge and recorder were furious and fined both the defendants and the jury for contempt, telling the jury that they had “followed your own judgments and opinions, rather than the good and wholesome advice which was given you” and ordered them jailed for non-payment of the fines.

But the jury was released soon after on the basis of habeas corpus applications and their incarceration was ruled illegal by a higher court.

I recount this story to remind us that it was due to the fortitude of people like Penn and Mead and the members of that jury that we enjoy the freedoms that are written in the Bill of Rights. They were able to stand up to coercion. The jury felt that the law prohibiting assembly and association was unjust and despite the disgusting treatment they received and the awful conditions they were subjected to, they were unwilling to compromise. By nullifying the law, they gave us a fundamental right.

US Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone would have approved: “If a juror feels that the statute involved in any criminal offence is unfair, or that it infringes upon the defendant’s natural god-given unalienable or constitutional rights, then it is his duty to affirm that the offending statute is really no law at all and that the violation of it is no crime at all, for no one is bound to obey an unjust law.”

It is good to be reminded of the history of how hard won are those things that we now consider fundamental freedoms, especially these days when people seem to be so willing, even eager, to give them up for a false sense of security. The recent enactments of the Patriot Act and Military Commissions Act, renditions, and the use of torture have stripped people of many of their rights. We tend to feel helpless in the face of an increasingly authoritarian government and a complaisant legislature. But we, the people, have the ultimate power as members of juries. If we consistently refuse to convict people on the basis of unjust laws, then the laws have no force.

But for this to have even a chance of happening, people have to be aware of the full rights of juries. I wonder, though, how many juries today, even if they knew of this right, would have the courage and fortitude of the William Penn jury and refuse to convict on the basis of unjust laws, whatever the facts of the case.