Is the US a ‘Christian nation’?

If one views this as a question of demographics, the answer is yes because the majority religion is Christianity. But that is not what those who clearly would love to see America be called a ‘Christian nation’ mean when they use the term because this is too fluid a definition and could change with time to become Muslim or Catholic or atheist nation, depending on demographic changes.

What such people would like to see is the US becoming a theocracy in which the barriers between the church and state are dismantled and the country run according to “Christian principles.” Of course, it is not clear what exactly these Christian principles are since, as I have discussed earlier, the Bible, the supposedly authoritative word of the Christian god, is all over the map when it comes to supposedly telling us what god wants.

But this does not faze those who seek to turn America into a theocracy. They share the idea, common to fanatics of all religions, that god, by a surprising coincidence, happens to share their own particular narrow-minded and intolerant view of how the world should be run. Of course, they do not see themselves as intolerant. They see themselves as benign, willing to accommodate other religious views as long as they do not run counter to their own.

One of the means by which they justify their goal of seeking a theocracy in the US is by essentially rewriting history, to argue that this country, after the arrival of the colonialists, was founded on Christian principles. They argue that the nature of the nation is inextricably bound up with Christianity and is thus impervious to demographic changes. They seek to persuade people that what they want is a return to those original principles and that this idea of a secular state with church-state separation is a more recent aberration, a deviation from the intent of the founders of the US constitution and the signers of declaration of independence.

Brooke Allen in his article Our Godless Constitution, which appeared in The Nation magazine (February 21, 2005) convincingly debunks that notion and I strongly urge you to read the full thing. As Allen writes, “Our nation was founded not on Christian principles but on Enlightenment ones. God only entered the picture as a very minor player, and Jesus Christ was conspicuously absent.”

Theocracy supporters try to blur this by acting as if more recent incorporations of god into public life were actually part of the original deliberations in the creation of the state. But Allen points out that popular invocations of the supposedly Christian origins of the US, such as “In God We Trust” on coins and “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, were both introduced much later, the first at the time of the Civil War, and the second during the McCarthy hysteria in 1954.

In fact, the founders seemed to go out of their way to keep god out. Allen provides copious examples to support his claims. He says “Our Constitution makes no mention whatever of God. The omission was too obvious to have been anything but deliberate.”

“In the eighty-five essays that make up The Federalist, God is mentioned only twice (both times by Madison, who uses the word, as Gore Vidal has remarked, in the “only Heaven knows” sense). In the Declaration of Independence, He gets two brief nods: a reference to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” and the famous line about men being “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Allen reports that in a 1797 “Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli, or Barbary,” (or more commonly, the Treaty of Tripoli), article 11 contains these words “[T]he Government of the United States…is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion[.]”

As Allen emphasizes:

This document was endorsed by Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and President John Adams. It was then sent to the Senate for ratification; the vote was unanimous. It is worth pointing out that although this was the 339th time a recorded vote had been required by the Senate, it was only the third unanimous vote in the Senate’s history. There is no record of debate or dissent. The text of the treaty was printed in full in the Philadelphia Gazette and in two New York papers, but there were no screams of outrage, as one might expect today.

The founders took great pains to keep the fundamentalists of their time (the Puritans) from having too great an influence over civic life because they were well aware of the damage this could do. This attitude is refreshing when compared to the attitudes of current politicians who fall over themselves in pandering to the Falwells and Robertsons and Dobsons, while shutting their eyes to their messages of intolerance.

Jefferson warned of people “civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time.”

Allen goes on to provide evidence that the key players among the founders were at most deists, “that is, they believed in one Supreme Being but rejected revelation and all the supernatural elements of the Christian Church; the word of the Creator, they believed, could best be read in Nature.”

He also says that:

Jefferson felt that the miracles claimed by the New Testament put an intolerable strain on credulity. “The day will come,” he predicted (wrongly, so far), “when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” The Revelation of St. John he dismissed as “the ravings of a maniac.”

One wonders what Jefferson would have thought of the current religious climate where even such truly crackpot notions as the rapture (based on the Book of Revelations) hold sway over a large number of Americans.

This did not mean that there was no undercurrent of religion in the US at the time of its founding. There was, and all of the founders seemed to have realized that declaring oneself to be an atheist caused political problems. Thus they seemed to adopt a minimalist religious philosophy as a hedge, to avoid controversy. But their careful positioning on this issue is quite different from the conspicuous public piety that is displayed by the current crop of political leaders.

“Like Jefferson, every recent President has understood the necessity of at least paying lip service to the piety of most American voters. All of our leaders, Democrat and Republican, have attended church, and have made very sure they are seen to do so. But there is a difference between offering this gesture of respect for majority beliefs and manipulating and pandering to the bigotry, prejudice and millennial fantasies of Christian extremists. Though for public consumption the Founding Fathers identified themselves as Christians, they were, at least by today’s standards, remarkably honest about their misgivings when it came to theological doctrine, and religion in general came very low on the list of their concerns and priorities–always excepting, that is, their determination to keep the new nation free from bondage to its rule.”

Brooke Allen’s article is excellent. You really should read it in full.

POST SCRIPT: The new, improved US constitution!

The US constitution is remarkable for its brevity. But many people would have not realized that it has been revised to make it even briefer. It now has only two articles:

Article I. In times of war, the President is always right and can do what he wants.

Article II. The President alone determines when the country is at war.

At least this is how the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel seems to see it.

Election year politics

We are well into an election year. In my opinion, every major decision that this administration takes from now on, every major statement of policy will be based on how they think it will affect the fall elections, if it will raise Bush’s poll numbers and most importantly, whether it will help maintain Republican control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The last feature is particularly important to this administration. Part of the reason they have been able to stonewall investigations into the Iraq war (both the run-up and the conduct) and into the secret CIA prisons overseas, NSA wiretapping, indefinite detentions and violations of habeus corpus, torture, etc. is that the Republican leadership in both houses have abdicated their oversight role. In particular, since the majority party holds the chairs of the committees, they have not invoked their subpoena powers or their right to ask that witnesses and administration officials testify under oath. As a result, we have seen time and again, that congressional hearings have turned into friendly chat sessions, where administration witnesses have been able to evade accountability under gentle questioning.

To be sure, the Democrats have not shown much vigor either. They were also complicit in letting the administration get away with the foreign policy disaster that is the war in Iraq. The Democrats in Congress have their own corporate and lobbyist base to please and it is expecting too much to see them play the role of vigorous watchdogs of the public interest. But if even one of the two legislative branches of government gets a Democratic majority, then at least a few of the resulting committee chairs will be people who will invoke their subpoena and oath power, demanding answers to at least some hard questions, resulting in the kind of scrutiny and exposure that has been avoided so far. This is something that the administration does not want to see in its last two years, especially as its failed policies at home and abroad start to unravel. Hence we will see a very determined effort to do whatever it takes to retain Republican control of both houses.

As a result, the overture to familiar strains of election year sloganeering are being heard, following a similar pattern. In the months leading to November, one can expect to hear a lot about the following: gay marriage, abortion, immigrants, flag burning, English-only rhetoric, UN bashing, estate tax repeal, and assisted suicide.

All these issues (except for immigration and the estate tax) share the characteristic that they are largely symbolic and directly affect only a tiny minority of people. They have little relevance to the actual lives of most people, but they do aim straight at the emotional core of the base and provide many opportunities to push people’s buttons and make them angry. And expect to hear lots of talk about god and religion, perhaps involving those old faithfuls such as displaying the ten commandments in public places or the pledge of allegiance or prayer in schools and similar church-state separation issues.

However, I would not be surprised if a completely unexpected, but equally trivial, new issue emerges suddenly, since the ones I have listed are, like, so-o-o-o 2004, and the extremist base loves fresh raw meat.

The permanent repeal of the estate tax benefits only a tiny number of extremely rich people and provides their heirs with a huge windfall. A more accurate name for the estate tax repeal act would the “Give Paris Hilton an Even Bigger Inheritance Act.” But the act will affect all of us since the economic costs of the move are not trivial, removing a huge chunk of revenues that the government will have to recoup from the rest of us. You can ignore the rhetoric about how this tax results in family farmers and other so-called ‘ordinary Americans’ losing their farms and undergoing other hardships on the death of a parent. That is a myth to make the tax sound as if it affects more people than it does, and is carefully designed to obscure the fact that the beneficiaries are extremely rich people.

The issue of immigration is the only one that is even remotely serious but even this is unlikely to be debated in a serious way. Instead it is likely to play on xenophobia and tap into latent racism.

And if all these things fail to generate support to maintain the congressional status quo, then one can always ratchet up the hysteria about terror. We can expect to see terror alerts being manipulated and the foiling of alleged terror ‘plots’ being announced with great fanfare, even if they involve seemingly inept groups of clueless people who, apart from grandiose ambitions and rhetoric, have little else going for them, for example, like the pathetic one in Florida and the so-called New York subway plot (see here and here and here.)

We should also expect to see a continuation of attacks by hyperventilating columnists and op-ed writers on the media for reporting any news on the war and the administration’s actions that show it in a negative night. These people will accuse reporters of deliberately advancing the interests of terrorists. The amazing thing is that such people can make these bizarre charges with a straight face, and are still treated as if they were serious people, instead of being marginalized for being irrational and incoherent.

(Glenn Greenwald has a typically astute post dealing with how politics in the US have realigned from the traditional liberal-conservative divide to a pro-neoconservative v. anti-neoconservative split. He uses the tough challenge being provided by Ned Lamont to neoconservative Joe Lieberman in the Democratic senatorial primary in Connecticut to showcase this change. You can read his piece here.)

And if all else fails, there is always the threat of war (or even actual war) with Iran and North Korea to fall back on. If they think that an attack on Iran or North Korea will distract voters from the administrations failures and rally people around them, they will do so.

It is interesting that in Sri Lanka too, election time brings out this kind of hysterical talk, base-pandering, and fear-mongering over hot button issues that had little to do with any issue of actual practical significance to most people. It seems as if politicians the world over instinctively resort to the same methods, irrespective of country, language, religion, and ethnicity.

I used to think that at some point people would wise up and realize that they are being played for suckers. But that day has not come yet. People seem to be willing to be used again and again, and have cynical politicians exploit their passions to advance the material interests of a few. Will this strategy work yet again to mobilize supporters this year or has it finally become so threadbare that it is seen as phony even by putative Bush supporters?

POST SCRIPT: New cartoonist

One of the many nice things about the internet is that it provides opportunities for people to get their ideas out to a wider audience and to communicate with others. I just discovered that a neighbor of mine is an amateur cartoonist who has a blog that deals with some of the same religion issues as this blog. You can see his full selection of cartoons here but two that I particularly like are this and this.

Details in politics

I wrote earlier how easy it is to believe in broad, sweeping statements. It is the details that are hard to accept. I said that a key difference between science and religion is that religious beliefs actually discourage people from asking detailed questions and investigating how the big picture manifests itself in concrete and specific situations, while in science it is precisely the issue of how well the details are explained that established the plausibility of the big picture.

The same holds true for politics. Politicians are fond of grand sweeping gestures and policies and equally fond of avoiding the details of implementation. Take for example the recent (but failed) attempt to enshrine in the constitution an amendment that would allow congress to pass laws preventing desecration of the flag. If you ask most people if they oppose flag desecration, they would likely say yes. But it is only when you get into the details of this policy that you see its ridiculousness. (Incidentally, I find this veneration for the flag in the US to smack of fetishism or even idolatry, but that is a topic for another day.)

What exactly constitutes desecration? Since the impetus for this amendment arises from people who are offended by flag burning protestors, one can infer that it is the very act of burning that constitutes desecration. The Washington Post reports that “The Citizens Flag Alliance, a group pushing for the Senate this week to pass a flag-burning amendment to the Constitution, just reported an alarming, 33 percent increase in the number of flag-desecration incidents this year.” As the reporter dryly notes, when one looks at the actual number of burnings, this constituted an increase from three to four, hardly an epidemic. In fact, the comic strip Doonesbury is running a series of strips (starting July 3) in which the Bush administration, frustrated by how few burnings there are to stir up outrage, covertly hires someone to burn a flag.

But the recommended method of disposing of old flags is burning, so it cannot be the act of burning that is objectionable, it must be the thought behind the act. So is the amendment aimed at creating a ‘thought crime’? If so, then if someone simply says that the flag should be burned and does not actually burn it, is that desecration? Or someone silently burns a flag while not saying or doing anything to indicate motive, is that a crime?

And what exactly constitutes a flag? The flag emblem is used for commercial purposes all the time and can be found on all manner of objects, including clothing. Can paper napkins with the flag design used at picnics be tossed in the trash or burned? Does such an act become desecration only if accompanied by some kind of protest statement?

But ‘defenders of the flag’ don’t like these questions being raised because it exposes the utter silliness of the issue. They would much rather stay with the big picture and intone with gravity about the deep significance of the flag.

The same thing about the importance of details is true for the much graver issues of war. If journalists covering the run up to the attack on Iraq had focused on investigating the details of the charges that were made by the Bush administration, instead of just reporting their global statements, the fraudulence of the case for war would have been exposed to a far wider audience.

The Bush administration simply kept making the charge that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the US and implied that they had links with al Qaeda and thus were complicit with the attacks of 9/11. People seemed to have no trouble believing all these big picture claims, which is why there was support for the war, at least initially.

Major media journalists should have repeatedly asked for details of each of these assertions, and asked questions such as: What evidence does the administration have that Iraq has threatened the US? What evidence does it have that they actually have the capacity and the intent to do so? What evidence exists for the alleged al Qaeda links? If they had done so, the case for attacking Iraq would have quickly fallen apart. But they will only do so if we, the public, insist that we want to know the answers to such questions before we approve military actions.

Another example of how details can reveal important truths in a political context is provided in this article by Los Angeles Times reporter Carol Williams on June 18, 2006.

What little we learn often comes to light by accident, through casual slips-of-the-lips by military doctors, lawyers and jailers innocently oblivious of their superiors’ preference for spin. A battery of questions to the prison hospital commander — who for security reasons can’t be identified — elicited that prisoners are force-fed through a nasal-gastric tube if they refuse to eat for three days and that 1,000 pills a day are dispensed to treat detainee ailments, anxiety and depression.

Those details became relevant when two prisoners attempted suicide May 18 by consuming hoarded prescription medications. Likewise, we understood why a hunger strike early this month began with 89 prisoners but swiftly fell off to a few defiant handfuls with the onset of painful and undignified force-feeding
. . .
I’ve been to Guantanamo six times. It was during my first visit in January 2005 that I learned how expressions of polite interest in minute details can elicit some of the most startling revelations. As Naval Hospital commander Capt. John Edmundson showed off the 48-bed prison annex, for instance, I asked, apropos of nothing, if the facility had ever been at or near capacity.

“Only during the mass-hanging incident,” the Navy doctor replied, provoking audible gasps and horrified expressions among the public affairs minders and op-sec – operational security – watchdogs in the entourage, none of whom were particularly pleased with the disclosure that 23 prisoners had attempted simultaneously to hang themselves with torn bed sheets in late 2003.

Details matter. It is well known that when people try to lie, they are often exposed by little details that trip them up, which is why crime suspects are urged to talk. It is easy to lie on a grand scale. It is hard to make details internally consistent if the big picture is false.

POST SCRIPT: Trying to deceive the Supreme Court

On June 29, 2006, the US Supreme Court in the case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, et. al. struck down the Bush administration’s assertion that they could basically do what they like with the detainees at Guantanamo, and that the courts had no jurisdiction over them. The court argued that the Geneva conventions, among other things, applied to the prisoners and that they had basic rights of due process.

When the Supreme Court hears arguments about the constitutionality of a law, it frequently examines the legislative debates that took place during the enactment of the law in order to more accurately determine legislative intent. Some Republicans have tried to use this to try and deceive the court during the arguments on this case, which involved the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), passed on December 20, 2005.

Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and John Kyl (R-Arizona) created a script of a bogus colloquy between them that did not actually occur while the act was debated, inserted the script into the congressional record after the legislation had passed, and then used that bogus debate as the basis for filing a friend of the court brief in the case to argue that the law meant the opposite of what it meant. The Justice Department also used that bogus debate as part of its brief.

As John Dean writes:

Hamdan’s lawyers, however, spotted the hoax. In their opposition to the motion to dismiss the case, they advised the Court that the supposedly conflicting legislative history was entirely invented after the fact, and that it consisted of “a single scripted colloquy that never actually took place, but was instead inserted into the record after the legislation had passed.” The brief noted, quite accurately, that this Graham-Kyl colloquy was “simply an effort to achieve after passage of the Act precisely what [they] failed to achieve in the legislative process.”

Ultimately, the Supreme Court did not decide the jurisdictional issue until it rendered its full ruling on June 29 of this year. There, Justice Stevens concluded correctly that the Congress had not stripped the Court of jurisdiction with the DTA.

Out of an apparent concern for interbranch comity, the High Court has chosen to ignore the bogus brief filed by Senators Graham and Kyl, rather than reprimanding the Senators. Nevertheless, when Graham and Kyl sought to file the very same brief, a month later, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columba (sic), Slate’s Emily Bazelon reports that court “issued an unusual order rejecting” their amicus brief alone, although they accepted five others.

No one familiar with this remarkable behavior by Graham and Kyl can doubt why the court did not want to hear from these senators.

This is the kind of chicanery that ensues when people try to defend the indefensible. How dishonest can these people get? Do they have no sense of ethics? Does no one hold them accountable?

The role of emotion in maintaining religion: a follow up

There were some very interesting comments to the original post on this topic that I would urge people to read. There was one point raised that I realized required a much more extended response. In that comment Corbin questioned some of my conclusions and asked “Is there really evidence to support Marx’s claim that religious persons and societies are more docile and more likely to simply endure social injustice?”
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The role of emotion in maintaining religion

As I have said before, I grew up being very religious and actively involved in church and Christian youth activities. I enjoy meeting old and close friends and relatives, many of whom I have known since my early childhood. Growing up, they all had known me as a practicing Christian, even more so than your regular Sunday churchgoer since I was an ordained lay preacher and regularly conducted services that many of them had listened to as members of the congregation.

Most of my relatives and childhood friends are still religious. When I encounter them now, many have heard on the grapevine of my apostasy and start up a conversation about faith, sometimes out of curiosity as to why I renounced my own belief, at other times to try and bring me back into the fold.

This happened again recently and during the discussion, the question was posed to me as to what, as an atheist, I could offer someone whose lot in life was wretched and hopeless. She said that at least religion could promise that person a better life in heaven, something that they could look forward to, and thus make life on Earth, however harsh, at least bearable.

It made me recall an Andy Capp cartoon where he and his wife Flo are stopped by a perspiring man carrying a heavy suitcase who asks them how far it is to the railway station. Flo replies that it is just a short distance away. The man perks up considerably and goes off. Andy then asks her why she said that since the station is a good way away. Flo replies, “The poor man looked so tired that I thought it would cheer him up.”

This is probably the main appeal of religion, that it provides hope (even if false) that enables people to face life. Religion provides a strong emotional appeal, providing people with something to look forward to so that they can face the present, however harsh, with a greater degree of equanimity.

It is this feature of religion that Karl Marx described as the “opium of the people.” What Marx was objecting to was that such an attitude had the effect of preventing people from protesting the injustice of their situation and seeking to change it. As he said in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (February 1844):

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.

Marx was accurate with his metaphor of opium for religion. It not only takes away pain, it also dulls the will to action. Perhaps religion persists because it is a form of addiction, removing us from the realm of reality just as effectively as heroin or cocaine, and is just as hard to relinquish. What the promise of heaven does is to ease the pressure on us to improve life on Earth. It is the ultimate cop-out.

But if we do not have religion, we are forced to take action. In the Andy Capp cartoon context, that translates into not lying to the person as Flo did in order to help that person feel good in the short run, but to either help him carry his suitcase so that his journey would be easier or to add wheels to the suitcase so that his journey is made easier.

The emotional appeal of religion is strong. It is appealing to think that there is some sense of cosmic justice where good is rewarded and evil punished. It is nice to think that in the afterlife, those who suffered unjustly will be rewarded and that there is a heavenly war trial where all those who have been responsible for willful and major human suffering would face their ultimate comeuppance. I think that it is this emotional appeal that keeps people faithful to religion.

Just yesterday, the news media reported that Ken Lay, the disgraced Enron head, had died of a heart attack just prior to his sentencing. Many people, appalled at the high life he led while swindling thousands of people of their life savings, were hoping to see him brought down from his life of luxury and spend his last days in jail. Some people expressed disappointment at the news of his death, that he had escaped the hardship of jail but expressed hope that he would pay in the afterlife. This is a common enough reaction and presumably gives those feeling aggrieved some consolation.

But atheists know that no such cosmic justice exists. The fate that evil people ultimately face is the same as the fate that anyone else faces, and that is death. Paradoxically, this need not be depressing but actually can serve as a call to action. If this is the one life that we have, it becomes clearer that our obligation to ourselves and to others is to make sure that it is the best it can be, so that everyone had a chance at a decent life.

If we seek justice, then it has to be done by us right here on Earth. That buck cannot be passed. That is the message that atheists have to offer to people. It may not have a soothing effect but is more likely to lead to concrete action.

POST SCRIPT: Minor Milestone

In checking the statistics for this blog, it appears that on June 30, 2006, the one million hit mark since its inception on January 26, 2005 was reached. Thank you very much to all those who visit, read, and comment. It has been a pleasure to write and, I hope, to provoke thought and discussions.

Why small problems create the most difficulties for Christians

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, has some interesting things to say on the importance of details in establishing credibility of any knowledge system. In his Reply to a Christian he points out how central it is to religious beliefs that one avoids any kinds of details that might lead to refutation, something that I have also been writing about for some time. His essay is worth quoting at length.
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Thoughts on Mark Twain’s The War Prayer

Sometimes great writers reveal truths that are hidden. At other times they reveal truths that are squarely in front of our eyes but which we do not see because we have not asked the right question. Mark Twain’s story The War Prayer fits into the latter category.

The idea of the intercessory prayer, where one asks for a favor or blessing for oneself or for a designated group of people, is such a familiar staple of religious life that its basis is unquestioned. But Twain points out what should have been obvious if we had only thought it through. The key section about the nature of such prayers is revealed when he writes:
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The War Prayer by Mark Twain

Today, being independence day in the US, will see a huge outpouring of patriotic fervor, with parades and bands and flag waving. Coming at a time when the mood of the country is being whipped up to mobilize and support yet another attack on another country (this time Iran) I thought it might be appropriate to read one of Mark Twain’s lesser known works.

I came across it during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was surprised by the fact that I had never even heard of it before, even though I have read quite a lot of Twain’s work and about Twain himself. Tomorrow I will look at what Twain is trying to say in this piece and the background to it. For today, I’ll let this remarkable piece of writing speak for itself.
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The devil in the details

In one of the classic Peanuts cartoons, Linus says that when he grows up he wants to become a great doctor and rid the world of illness. His sister Lucy tells him he can’t because he doesn’t care enough about humanity. An indignant Linus responds, “I love humanity! It’s people I can’t stand!”

I remembered that cartoon as I was writing the recent series of posts about the difficulties with believing that the mind/soul is a non-material entity that can exist independently of the material body and brain. I wrote about how Descartes struggled with how to understand the actual working of the model.
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Algeria and Iraq

I just saw a remarkable film The Battle of Algiers. Made in black and white (French with English subtitles) in 1966 by the Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, the story is about the Algerian struggle for independence and the battle between the rebels and the French colonial powers in the capital city of Algiers in the period 1954-1960.

In order to deal with the increasing violence during this period, the French government sends in elite paratroopers led by Colonel Mathieu. Mathieu sets about ruthlessly identifying the structure of the insurgent network, capturing and torturing members to get information on others, and killing and blowing up buildings in his pursuit of the rebels even if it contains civilians. And yet, he is not portrayed as a monster. In one great scene where he is giving a press conference, he is asked about his methods of getting information and the allegations of torture. He replies quite frankly that the French people must decide if they want to stay in Algeria or leave, and if they want to halt the violence against them or let it continue. He says that if they want to stay and stop the violence, then they must be prepared to live with the consequences of how that is achieved. It is the French people’s choice.

One gets the sense that Mathieu does not torture and kill suspects because he enjoys it. He is simply an amoral man, who has been given a job to do and he will get it done using whatever means he deems necessary. This is the kind of military person that political leaders want. They don’t want people who worry about the niceties of human rights and human dignity. But when you train people to deny their normal human feelings, then you get the kind of people who carry out the tortures described in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and who are even surprised when there is an outcry that what they did was wrong.

And Mathieu does succeed in his task, at least in the short run. By his ruthless methods he destroys the rebel network. But all that this buys is some time. After a lull in the violence for a couple of years, a sudden eruption of mass protests results in Algeria becoming independent in 1962. The French win the battle of Algiers but lose the war of independence.

The film gives a remarkably balanced look at the battle, avoiding the temptation to fall into easy clichés about good and evil. It shows the FLN (National Liberation Front) using women and children to carry out its bombing campaign against French civilians living in the French areas of the city. In one memorable sequence, three young Muslim women remove their veils, cut their hair, put on makeup, and dress like French women to enable them to carry bombs in their bags and pass through military checkpoints that surround the Muslim sector of the city (the Casbah). They place those bombs in a dance hall, coffee shop and Air France office, bombs that explode with deadly effect killing scores of civilians who just happen to be there.

In one scene:

Pontecorvo deals with the issue of the killing of innocents by an army vs. such killing by an irregular force. During a press conference, a reporter asks a captured official of the FLN: “Isn’t it a dirty thing to use women’s baskets to carry bombs to kill innocent people?” To which the official answers, “And you? Doesn’t it seem even dirtier to you to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages with thousands of innocent victims? It would be a lot easier for us if we had planes. Give us your bombers, and we’ll give you our baskets.”

The parallels of Algeria and Iraq are striking, so much so that it is reported that the US policy makers and military viewed this film with a view to hoping to learn how to combat the Iraq insurgency.

As in Iraq, the rebels are Muslims and the objections they have to being ruled by non-Muslims plays an important role in their motivation to revolt. The French had just humiliatingly lost in Vietnam in 1954 and their military was anxious to rehabilitate their reputations by winning elsewhere. In other words, they had their own ‘Vietnam syndrome’ to deal with, just like the US.

In the film, you see how the ability of the insurgents to blend in with the urban population enables them to move around and carry out attacks on the French police and citizenry, with women and children playing important roles. We see how the privileged and western lifestyle of the French people in Algeria makes them easy targets for attacks. We see how the attacks on French people and soldiers in Algeria causes great fury amongst the French citizenry, causing them to condone the torture and killing and other brutal methods of the French troops.

One major difference between the French involvement in Algeria and US involvement is Iraq is that Algeria had been occupied by the French for 130 years, since 1830. They had been there for so long that they considered it part of France and refused to consider the possibility of independence. The long occupation also resulted in a significant number of French people living in the city of Algiers, thus making them vulnerable targets. In Iraq, there are very few US civilians and almost all of them are in the heavily fortified so-called ‘green zone.’

The film takes a balanced look at what an urban guerilla war looks like and those who wish to see what might be currently happening in cities like Ramadi and Falluja and Baghdad can get a good idea by seeing this film. The scenes of mass protest by huge crowds of Algerians and their suppression by the occupying French forces are so realistic that the filmmakers put a disclaimer at the beginning stating that no documentary or newsreel footage had been used. And amazingly, this realism was achieved with all novice actors, people who were selected off the streets of Algiers. Only the French Colonel Mathieu was played by a professional actor, but you would not believe it from just seeing the film since the actors give such natural and polished performances, surely a sign of a great director.

For a good analysis of the film and background on its director, see here. The film is available at the Kelvin Smith Library.

POST SCRIPT: Documentary about Rajini Rajasingham-Thiranagama

Today at 10:00 pm WVIZ Channel 25 in Cleveland is showing No More Tears Sister. I wrote about this documentary earlier.