Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Non-talking New York Blues

The New York Times has tackled a subject near and dear to my heart.

In this article that appeared Sunday, October 29, called "The Elephant in the Room," Anne E. Kornblut faces the fact that politics has become the untouchable third rail of conversation at the dinner parties and the book clubs and the mothers' play groups that form the glue of our social interactions these days. Even families aren't immune to the cold chill that descends when the topic comes up (tell me about it!).

Judith of Kesher Talk has a masterful and heartfelt post on the subject. She's been there--oh, how she's been there!

The Times article, which is well worth reading in its entirety, is a curious document indeed. It describes behavior--the social shunning of those who disagree, mainly on the part of liberal Democrats--that is neither liberal nor democratic. It's not even civil. And yet I can only assume that much of the Times's readership is in basic sympathy with that behavior.

I've never had the experience of being in a group of Republicans as the lone liberal Democrat, even back when I was a liberal Democrat (I still consider myself a liberal--of the classic variety--but not a Democrat). Maybe it's because liberal Democrats (and conservative Republicans?) tend to hang out with their own kind, not by design necessarily but by confluence of interests and activities. Perhaps conservative Republicans are just as nasty to their liberal friends and family members; I really wouldn't know (although if one of the commenters to Judith's thread is to be believed, in Utah the Republicans are quite nice to the liberals in their midst).

But I do know that conversos, neo-neocons such as I, reprobate traitors to their political roots, are probably exposed to this sort of intolerance for differing opinion most often, for the simple reason that we still tend to socialize with liberals. After all, we didn't make a bunch of neo-friends to go with our neo-neocon status, nor did we get adopted by a neo-family. The fallout and the flak has been difficult, although most of the time, by now, we do the "agree to disagree" thing and it works out okay.

I know people whose marriages have suffered greatly from differences of opinion that previously were something to joke about. Now--as the article points out--viewpoints have hardened and the other side has been demonized to the point where the Other has become the Enemy.

It's a reflection of what's happened in Congress, as well. As districts have become more rigidly fixed along polarized lines, and members of Congress have become more extreme on both sides, collegiality has gone out the window.

But let's look at that Times article more closely. It features a liberal woman of thirty-seven named Sheri Langham, whose parents are Republicans. It never used to be much of a problem for Sheri before, but now she says, politics "became such a moral litmus test" that she stopped speaking to her 65-year-old mother for a month.

Sheri again, on her mother: she became the face of the enemy.

To her credit, Ms. Langham came out of her funk and started talking with her evil Republican mother once again, only this time they've agreed not to discuss politics. But Ms. Langham puts her finger on the source of much of the hatred on the Democrat side: Bush supporters have become "the enemy."

American politics have always been contentious. I grew up with fierce political disagreements among family members, and arguments whenever the group got together, which was often (the sides in question were liberal, left, and far-left, by the way). But if people stopped speaking over politics, it was the rare exception. Now it seems, if not the rule, certainly a fairly commonplace phenomenon.

And even in the Times article, it seems to be the liberals doing most of the outright shunning.

The article reports, however, that many people in both parties are choosing to be among friends who agree with them rather than deal with the contention of differing views. As Judith mentions in her post, political discussions among the liberals with whom she hangs out (or used to hang out) seem to have evolved (or devolved?) into support groups:

In other words, they brought up politics, but they are the only ones who get to play. If you join in, you are the one who soured the conversation by bringing up politics. Because they weren't trying to start a political discussion, they just wanted to commiserate with friends. You party pooper.

Yes. And the shock of learning that someone who somehow looks liberal (whatever that might mean; I don't wear Birkenstocks) and sounds intelligent and even likes the arts and isn't into Nascar racing might actually disagree on political issues is so profound it sometimes can't be processed properly.

I recall being at a party where a political discussion was being held--actually, it was more of a political support group, until I made the mild comment that I agreed with Bush on that particular issue (I don't recall any more what it was).

The woman closest to me asked, "What did you say?" I repeated my response. She asked again; this happened three times. She wasn't being sarcastic. And she wasn't hard of hearing. She simply was having trouble assimilating the information; it did not compute that someone like me could agree with someone like him.

I'm reminded of the famous remark attributed to film critic Pauline Kael, to the effect that she could hardly believe Nixon had won in '72 because no one she knew had voted for him. And since I so love to do research, I looked up the remark and discovered this slight correction; it turns out Ms. Kael was misquoted. She actually seems to have refused to comment on Nixon's election when questioned by a reporter, and gave as her reason the fact that she didn't even know anyone who voted for him.

That seems to me to be a sort of comment, as well. But it's not the same comment as "How could he have been elected? No one I know voted for him!" which strikes a note of arrogance and insularity astounding even in a woman who probably moved in rarified circles.

Her actual comment, however, is just as good for the purposes of this essay; I have no trouble whatsoever in believing that Kael had no friends who voted for Nixon.

Actually, I'll amend that: I have no trouble whatsoever believing that Kael had no friends whom she knew had voted for Nixon, who talked about it openly in the liberal circles of literary New York. But perhaps--just perhaps--she knew someone who was a Nixon supporter, and who was in the closet about it.

We don't know what we don't know--although we may think we know--and if people don't speak up, we continue not to know. And, believe me, if I were voting for Nixon in the liberal New York of 1972, I'd probably keep my mouth shut about it, too (but yes, indeed, I was one of the 38% of the country who voted for McGovern).

[NOTE: Part II of the Lurçat trial planned for tomorrow.]

And then there's this one...

Back when I did that post on fall photos of New England, I unaccountably forgot to include this one, which is perhaps my favorite:

Monday, October 30, 2006

Hand round the refreshments: the Lurçat trial (Part I)

Here's Alice, called as a witness at the trial of the Knave of Hearts in Wonderland (otherwise known as France--minus the jury, that is):

What do you know about this business? the King said to Alice.

Nothing, said Alice.

Nothing WHATEVER? persisted the King.

Nothing whatever, said Alice.

That's very important, the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: UNimportant, your Majesty means, of course, he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.

UNimportant, of course, I meant, the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, important--unimportant-- unimportant--important-- as if he were trying which word sounded best.

Some of the jury wrote it down important, and some unimportant. Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over their slates; but it doesn't matter a bit, she thought to herself.

Why am I so incensed over the second France 2 trial, when the verdict hasn't even been rendered yet? And why am I close to certain that I know what the verdict will be (hint: the same as the first trial-- victory for France 2), although I'd be happy to be proven wrong?

Remember, the issues in this trial are enormous: a famous journalist disseminates a story that's seen around the world, complete with inflammatory photos derived from the video. The story and photos spark many retaliatory murders in the name of the martyred boy. Although many other photographers are present that day at the spot where the event is alleged to have happened, the story is substantiated only by a single tape filmed by France 2's Palestinian stringer Talal (journalist Enderlin was not present). The video doesn't show what it purports to show, although the journalist alleges that it did. Later, forensic evidence contradicts what the journalist has claimed.

Now that same journalist and his state-run TV station are suing three French citizens who have accused them---rather mildly, at that, by internet standards--of lying.

One would think these trials ought to take more time and effort than the run-of-the-mill traffic violation. And in fact, they have--but just a little bit more. Each case so far has lasted just a few hours.

That is peculiar, to say the least. I've been told that in France trials tend to be much shorter than in the US (where, if truth be told, many of them are too long). But the facts of this case, and its importance, should certainly have dictated far more attention and care than I saw demonstrated in that Palais de Justice courtroom last Tuesday. And, in fact, a run-of-the-mill traffic case in the US does generate more attention and care than I saw in that French courtroom.

For example, the head judge (who happened to resemble Dennis Miller with a two-day growth of stubble--and that's not necessarily a bad thing) announced early on that, although witness Richard Landes had been slated to show a videotape, this particular courtroom wasn't equipped with a functioning video player, and so it wouldn't be shown.

Oh, yeah; whatever.

My Eurocentric trolls probably won't like me for making the following contention (but they don't like me anyway, so what the hey?), but it's my impression that in the dinkiest courtroom in the smallest podunk town in the USA, if something like that were to happen, a functioning machine would either be obtained or the court would adjourn until one could be located.

But that was only the tip of the iceberg. I'm certainly not an expert in French law, and I only had a chance to ask a few questions of the lawyer after the trial, but the whole issue of evidence seems to be a very lax one in the French system. In other words, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of attention paid to evidence at all.

Nor to logic, actually. The whole thing played like a version of "he said, she said," only with nifty costumes--black robes and white cravats for the judges and lawyers. blue T-shirts for the gun-toting gendarmes.

The trial opened with the judge describing the charges, ascertaining that the defendant was indeed whom he purported to be, and stating the supposedly defamatory words. So far, so good.

The defendant was Pierre Lurçat, 39, a Frenchman who is a Jerusalem resident. Lurçat is the president of an organization called “Liberty, Democracy, and Judaism,” and is listed as the legal operator of a Web site, www.liguededefensejuive.com, that urged readers in 2002 to demonstrate against “the lies of France 2,” suggesting that France 2 and Charles Enderlin be given an award for disinformation.

Unlike Karsenty, who'd been a presence at his defamation trial (the first one, a month ago), Lurçat didn't attend. Neither Enderlin nor any representative of France 2 has been at either trial, and I doubt they'll go to the third one, either.

Perhaps Lurçat had read the writing on the wall from Karsenty's trial where, despite the recommendation of the special court reporter (a figure in French courts who represents the interests of the people) that the court find for Karsenty, the judges took the unusual step of going against her suggestion. At any rate, not only was Lurçat a no-show, but one of his defenses appeared to be that he hadn't actually written the words in question on his website; someone else had.

Richard Landes, who is one of the few people outside of France 2 who's seen Talal's tape, testified for the defense, based on his study of the al-Durah incident (you can see some of his reasoning at his blog and his website, if you're not already familiar with his work).

Although the plaintiff's lawyer asked not a single question of Landes (she appeared, rather, to be engaged mostly in admiring her own nifty high-heeled black boots during his testimony--I had a good view of her from behind and across the rather small courtroom), the head judge seemed to perk up during it. The judge actually showed some affect then--something I hadn't seen him demonstrate till that moment. He seemed interested and concerned.

Perhaps he was merely concerned with the fact that the trial was already lasting longer than he wanted it to. But perhaps he was genuinely interested. and genuinely distressed by what he was hearing: missing footage, no blood when the child was supposedly shot, no bullets shown from the Israeli position.

In the first trial, this sort of judicial interest (on the part of a different judge) had been taken by many of Karsenty's supporters to actually mean something in terms of the decision. But this time no one was that naive.

The prosecutor called not a single witness, nor did she ask one question of either of the two witnesses called by the defense, the second of whom was French journalist Luc Rosenzweig. The witnesses in this courtroom were required to stand and face the judges, so the audience was unable to see their faces from the front. But I was impressed nevertheless by Rosenzweig's controlled outrage.
Rosenzweig, a man in his early sixties who is a former chief editor of Le Monde, fairly vibrated with contempt for what Enderlin and France 2 had done, were doing, and might do again.

My sense is that some of his sense of outrage came from the fact that he thinks they have defamed the honor of journalism. He mentioned that Enderlin's acts--lying about what was in Talal's rushes, refusing to disclaim footage that even Enderlin himself had privately admitted was mostly staged--go against journalistic ethics.

Rosenzweig, like Landes, happens to be one of the few people on earth outside of France 2 employees who have seen the Talal tapes. The court, of course, didn't see fit to count itself among them; shockingly, the tapes have been released neither to the court nor to the public.

I could not get a straight answer from anyone as to how the trial was able to proceed without the court or the defense compelling a viewing of the tapes. But perhaps the attitude towards the missing/broken video machine is a clue--the French court simply does not care about evidence, the mainstay of our legal system What does it care about? As best I can tell: power, prestige, and reputation; and saving time, money, and effort.

It's a bit like another of my favorite trials (the source of the excerpt that began this post): that of the Knave of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, where Alice muses at the outset: I wish they'd get the trial done, and hand round the refreshments!

One of the highlights of the trial--in fact, it may have been the highlight of the trial for me--was when Rosenzweig snorted, “I've said a lot worse [than Lurçat did] about Enderlin lying, and he never went after me! Enderlin lied repeatedly in the affair.” Rosenzweig was emphasizing not only that Enderlin is a liar, but that Enderlin and France 2 have been very careful in their choice of targets; I think I'm safe in predicting that they'll not be coming after Rosenzweig next.

No, it's pretty clear they want these trials to remain low profile--and in fact, until now, they have.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Another changed mind, this time in France

Will wonders never cease?:

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy declared last week he has changed his opinion on Israel's controversial separation barrier in light of its drastic effect on terror..."I have significantly evolved on the matter of the separation fence,” said Douste-Blazy on French Jewish television TFJ on Thursday. “Although the wall was a moral and ethical problem for me, when I realised terror attacks were reduced by 80 percent in the areas where the wall was erected, I understood I didn’t have the right to think that way.”

On the one hand, it's good to hear that Douste-Blazy has evolved so very significantly.

On the other hand, what had he originally thought was going to happen when the Israelis built the wall? Does he understand the principle of cause and effect? Did he lack the capacity to understand the reasoning behind the wall? Did he understand it, but didn't believe it, because his kneejerk reaction was to discount everything Israelis say? Is he speaking on his own now? Or did he get the okay from the higher-ups (almost certainly the case)? And, if so, why? Is this an actual change of mind, some sort of signal that France is softening its stance towards Israel, if only un peu?

Hamas wasn't all that happy with Douste-Blazy's evolution:

“It is the Palestinian nation which is suffering from the separation fence, not the French nation,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. “Our nation is paying a high price for the separation and he [Douste-Blazy] must understand that the wall is the symbol of racial segregation and isolation.”

In other words, Hamas wishes to remind France that it needs to return, and pronto, to the proper leftist multi-culti line. However, in a rare moment of actual grounding in actual reality rather than rhetoric, France appears to be deviating from regarding the wall as a symbol of anything, and is instead noting that it has an actual function in the real world, which is to keep out those Palestinians who are intent on coming into Israel for the express purpose of blowing to smithereens as many Israeli men, women, and children as they possibly can.

How unsymbolic of France.

[NOTE: U*2 at ¡No Pasarán! explains the motive behind France's change of mind. Makes sense to me. And so, France may be regarding the wall as a symbol after all--a symbol of what France would like to do to its own Muslim population these days.

I've added ¡No Pasarán! to my blogroll. I'm sure you'll see why when you read their self-description: Behind the Façades in France: What expats and the mainstream media (French and American alike) fail to notice (or fail to tell you) about French attitudes, principles, values, and official positions… ]

Glad to have gone, glad to be back

I'm back, after having gotten an eyeful and an earful of Paris. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

That's just hyperbole, for the sake of a literary reference; but the truth is that it was both exhilarating and sobering. I plan quite a few more ruminations on topics stirred up by my visit, but right now I'm just glad to be back.

Glad to be back, indeed.

I've written before about how, when I was a schoolkid, our teachers made us memorize tons of poetry, much of it with about as much literary merit as a Hallmark greeting card. Due to the idiosyncrasies of my brain, much of this stuff is still with me and pops into my head at the oddest times, unbidden.

When I was in Europe, this was the verse (memorized in fifth grade, as I recall) that acted as a rather mild earworm:

AMERICA FOR ME by Henry Van Dyke

'Tis fine to see the Old World, and travel up and down
Among the famous palaces and cities of renown
To admire the crumbly castles and the statues of the kings, --
But now I think I've had enough of antiquated things.
So it's home again, and home again, America for me!
My heart is turning home again, and there I long to be
In the land of youth and freedom beyond the ocean bars
Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars.

It ain't great poetry, that's for sure. It was exactly the sort of thing teachers were fond of force-feeding their students back in the 50s. It was a pre-ironic age; patriotism was sincere, and it was considered part of the job of the educational system to inspire it in our young--with second-rate verse, if need be.

We're all so jaded and cynical now that a poem like this seems hopelessly outdated. But the sentiment is a classic; America really is one of the freest countries on earth, despite Bushhitler and the evil Rove. One feels it even more strongly after only a brief exposure to French justice.

[NOTE: Henry van Dyke, author of "America for Me," was--suprisingly--a professor of English literature at Princeton, a Presbyterian clergyman, a lecturer at the University of Paris, and Minister to the Netherlands and Luxembourg. I guess he knew whereof he spoke.

Can you imagine these sorts of sentiments emerging--in populist verse, or otherwise--from the pen of an academic similarly situated today?]

Friday, October 27, 2006

Behind the facade of justice: French defamation law and freedom of what?

I knew that Lurçat's defamation trial was likely to be a short one.

The first France 2 libel suit, against Karsenty (see this for some background as to what these trials are about), had lasted only a few hours and was heard on a single afternoon. This had surprised me, and sparked a host of questions: why so short? Why hadn't the defense compelled the release of the France 2 video taken by cameraman Talal on that fateful day at the Netzarim junction? Why had so little evidence in general been heard? In other words, what was going on here?

What I hadn't realized was how US-centric my questions had been. Yes, of course, I knew that France has a different legal system than ours: theirs was based mainly on the Napoleonic Code, whereas ours was a predominantly common law system of evolving and changing interpretations of previous case law and statutes, under the overarching protection of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

But surely, as two Western countries purporting to share a love of liberty, the law of France and that of the US shouldn't be all that different.

It was only when I looked into the law of defamation under the French legal system that I realized the differences were not subtle, as I'd previously thought. They were major, reflecting profound differences in the attitudes of each country towards justice, its citizenry, society--and, in particular, the value and desirability of freedom of speech.

Here is a summary of French law concerning defamation; see pages thirteen and fourteen for the relevant material.

Essentially, France has made it incredibly easy to win a libel suit. Nearly all you need to do is to show that you were defamed (“any allegation or imputation of an act affecting the honor or reputation of the person or body against whom it is made”). I said “nearly all” because yes, there is a defense, and that is truth.

Well, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? But it is bad, and this is why: the burden of proof in France falls on the defendant.

That’s such a dry, legal phrase: “burden of proof.” But what it means in practice is that it's up to the person who made the defamatory statement to prove to a three-judge panel (not a jury; this reflects the fact that the French have far less trust in the decisions of its ordinary citizen than the US does) that the defamatory statement was true. Or, if the statement concerned a matter of public importance, he/she is required to prove that he/she conducted a serious investigation before making the statement, and that the statement was measured and objective and without even a trace of personal hostility.

Check out that word, prove. It means just what it says, not “indicate he/she had reason to believe it was true” or “suggest it might be true,” or even “prove it was most likely true.” It places the burden of proof in defending against a libel suit unconscionably-- almost ludicrously--high.

Compare this to the American standard for defamation, particularly for public figures (and Charles Enderlin is nothing if not a public figure). The burden of proof in the US is entirely on the plaintiff to prove the statement was defamatory, false, and malicious. In New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964, the Supreme Court established the standard: the First Amendment protected "uninhibited, robust, and wide-open" criticism of public officials, at least unless it could be proved that the critic was deliberately lying or showed "reckless disregard" for the truth.

It turns out the US is serious—very very serious—about protecting First Amendment freedom of speech rights. It’s also less concerned than a country like France about the power of insults, or with the need to prevent slurs on one’s honor. “Whatever,” says the US, we can take it; what’s most important is the right to free speech. What’s most important to the French seems to be that society be courteous at all costs, even to public figures. And in making accusations against public figures, even a private citizen must make sure he has conducted a thorough investigation.

Of course, the need for a thorough investigation doesn’t seem to apply to Charles Enderlin or France 2. He’s free to broadcast any charge he wants (at least, as long as it's PC)—for example, that the IDF murdered Mohammed al-Durah. He needs neither to prove his assertion, nor to defend himself against the charges that he misrepresented the facts, nor to show that he was conscientious in his duty as a journalist when he jumped to that conclusion based on Talal’s tapes--which present a one-minute scene embedded in almost a half-hour of other scenes that are obviously faked, do not show either father or son being hit and bleeding, and give no indication that the gunfire making the bullet holes in the wall behind al-Durah was coming from the IDF position, much less that he was shot by them.

So even if many murders were committed in the name of vengeance for al-Durah’s death at the hands of those nefarious Israeli soldiers, Enderlin knows there is no danger that anyone will call him to account--except, perhaps, the likes of defendants Karsenty, Lurçat, and Gouz. And he knows that he can always sue them with the full force of French law behind him, a law that presumes their guilt and his outraged innocence.

Well, France is France, you might say. It’s gotten along with this crazy system for hundreds of years, right? If they’re so deeply concerned that their sacred honor remain unbesmirched--even by “mere words”--and so unconcerned with the loss of their freedom of speech, what’s it to us?

Just this: we’re all potentially "caught in the crossfire" of the French press and the consequences of its allegations. It seems able to make nearly any assertion it wants with impunity, and fully ready to successfully squelch those French citizens who might dare to question the mighty reputations of France 2 and Charles Enderlin, who in 1988 earned the coveted title of grand reporter (you can look it up.)

The French press is a loose cannon, unable to be successfully challenged by its citizenry. And that's the way the government wants it; after all, France 2 is owned and run by that government.

C'est la vie, c'est la guerre.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Paris observations

It's afternoon here, and I'm about to go out and do a bit of unaccustomed sightseeing.

What have I been doing instead? Mostly writing, talking, and eating. So now I'm going to take a few hours and do ye olde tourist thing, and then get back and write a more substantive post in my series on the trial, and on French attitudes and philosophy; I've got a lot more to say.

But here are just a few observation of the lighter variety:

(1) French style still exists, but it's markedly attenuated. On my previous visits here (one in 1963--I was a mere child, of course--one in 1978, 0ne in 1993) there was an air of extreme sophistication, of bred-in-the-bone elegance, especially among the women. Now, walking down the street, if it weren't for the French language and the beautiful old buildings, one could be in Anytown, USA. Jeans, jeans, and more jeans; sloppy shirts and sweaters of no particular style or shape, and cellphones sprouting everywhere like a new appendage joining the head and hand.

I did see one woman who seemed to be singlehandedly upholding the remnants of French style, like the Statue of Liberty with her torch. I wish I'd had my camera (I'm planning to take it with me this afternoon), because words cannot describe her outfit adequately. It was entirely apple green--or rather, neo-neocon Granny Smith Green--a tight and stylish suit, and intricately embroidered lacy tights in the same green color. Shoes, as well, and a purse--all apple green. Sounds dreadful, but with her model-thin figure and striking auburn hair, she managed to pull it off.

(2) Every now and then you see a remnant of the old France, tiny old ladies with shopping bags, shuffling along with a baguette in the sack, slow but steady. They saw the Occupation, lived through it, and know that this, too, will pass. All of it.

(3) ATM machines are missing an important step in their English translations. When you get to the all-important "Press the confirm button" prompt--well, of course, there is no "confirm" button, nor is there a translation so that you can determine which one it might be.

And pressing all the buttons doesn't work, as I can attest. The solution? Cherchez a passing American and get instructions. You'll be glad you did.

(4) Paris has now joined the modern world and gotten the dog-poop-on-the-sidewalk problem under control. But alas, dogs no longer seem ubiquitous in restaurants.

(5) A lot of "women of a certain age" here have mastered the Jeanne Moreau look: mature, with huge circles under the eyes that somehow seem tres chic--on them. How do they manage it? They won't tell me the secret--after all, they're French.

And now I'm outta here. Back with more substantive stuff later.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The facade: encountering the Palais de Justice

This experience is going to take a while to digest. So please bear with me, and don't expect today's post to bring you the definitive and complete reckoning of yesterday's courtroom events and the larger meaning I draw from them, although that will come. This is more of an impressionistic first take.

First, some photos of the Palais de Justice, where the trial was held. Here's the impressive gold-gilded imperial facade, even more imposing in person:

There isn't a courthouse in the United States built in this particular style. That's because there isn't a courthouse in the US that could possibly have had this building's aristocratic legacy. Furthermore, the American conception of the role of a courthouse, and the legal system it contains and facilitates, is quite different, as well.

You may think I'm speaking of architectural esthetics, but I'm not. I'm talking about how architecture can reflect an entire ethos, and symbolize in concrete (get it, concrete?) form the philosophy behind the building itself. And in this case the Palais de Justice seems an almost perfect paradigm of French justice, even though it was originally built for another purpose.

So we have a wonderful and intricate facade that attempts to impress with its splendor and glory (in this case, the aristocratic glory of yesteryear). Carved above the main entrance is the rallying cry of the French Revolution (minus the original "or death" addendum):

Yesterday we entered though a side door after a long wait in the line to have our bags searched. That meant we were a bit late, and so we began racing through the building too fast for me to even think to take photos of the inside of the building.

But I should have. Because despite my mad dash around the courthouse (a maze in which there was no direction, no order, no guide to where the numbered rooms might be, and no one interested in answering directions or expediting matters, as well as no one caring if we wandered in and out of offices and random judges' chambers) I could still register with shock that the place was a shambles, in disrepair and disorder.

Some of the disorder was the result of the fact that they are renovating. But some of it was just the worn-out shabbiness of an interior that's been neglected way too long.

Who were this "we" of which I speak? Myself and my interpreter, a young woman who'd graciously offered to translate the proceedings for me by whispering the English into my ear as events unfolded. She was the one who kept asking directions and getting them, as we circled inside the huge structure, raced up and down staircases and down hallways, opened doors and closed them, and came back to our starting point beside a broken x-ray machine that had taken up residence in the hall.

When we finally entered the courtroom it was small, with unattractive but ancient wood paneling and uncomfortable benches. The set-up told a tale, as well. There are three robed judges in a French court, almost never a jury (fraternite, my foot!). The lawyers and the witnesses address them, standing and facing the court with their backs to the proletariat spectators.

A gilded exterior and a hollow heart; that's my impression of French justice after this trial (more about that, of course, later). And I discovered, while doing a little research, that this building has another history, one that reflects especially ironically on the failed promise of the slogan carved outside its portals.

The Palais was long the residence of French monarchs and aristocrats (and it's appropriate, as you will see, because present-day French justice is loaded with respect and recognition of the newer aristocrats, those movers and shakers of influence and power).

But the Palais has an even darker (and to me, more relevant) past. It was the seat of "justice" during the Reign of Terror, that post-revolutionary phase that featured purges of nearly everyone who had offended anyone, without much benefit of trial or the ability to mount a defense:

Try to envision a sharply dressed, prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville, who would arrive daily at 8:00 to his offices located in towers. He would have his daily conference with Sanson, a.k.a. Monsieur de Paris, the executioner. Together they would make up the hit-list du jour, and order the corresponding number of wagons.

The accused would then meet before the prosecutor, plead their cause, and await the verdict. Although a goodly number were acquitted or given lesser sentences, over two thousand were condemned to the "national razor".

Despite the efficiency, Robespierre, the leader of the revolutionary government, became increasingly impatient and prodded Fouquier-Tinville to pick up the pace. To do so, a few formalities were dropped such as providing for defense. Soon, sentence was pronounced when the prisoner appeared in court.

The French no longer behead people--in fact, capital punishment is a definite no-no. And of course they don't pronounce sentence when the prisoner arrives; the sentence for yesterday's trial, for example, won't officially be handed down till Nov 28. And, of course, this defendant had a lawyer to plead his case, and even if he is found guilty the fine will be very light.

But make no mistake about it: this appears to have been a show trial nevertheless. Everything about the demeanor of the judges and the plaintiff's lawyer conveyed that thought: the lack of seriousness in the courtroom, the boredom and inattention of the judges, the paucity of evidence (or even interest in what meager evidence there was), the sloppy disregard of detail, the almost palpable absence of a spirit of inquiry.

Unlike the Reign of Terror, the facade of a fair system remains. But, at least to my eyes and ears, the interior of that system--the heart of the matter, which is the dispensation of justice--is shabby, faded, and dysfunctional.

I say "dysfunctional," but I suppose judgment on that score would depend on what is perceived as the function of the system. If the goal is to defend liberty (freedom of speech, for example), all seems lost: "abandon hope, all who enter here." Likewise, if the goal is equality.

If the goal, however, is to preserve the status and reputation of those with influence and power--the mandarins of France--then all is well. The facade is intact; on with the show, vive le république!

The Sanity Squad strikes again:: moderate Islam; Ted Kennedy's doings

The latest Sanity Squad podcast deals with two issues: can there be a moderate Islam? And what's with Ted Kennedy's appeal to the Soviets for campaign help back in 1983?

If you want opinions, the Squad's got em, and isn't especially shy about expressing them.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

I'm off to the Palais de Justice

I'm off to the Palais de Justice, and I'm not just sightseeing.

Today is the occasion of the second al Durah/France2 defamation trial, that of defendant Pierre Lurçat :

Lurçat, 39, a Jerusalem resident and president of an association called Liberty, Democracy and Judaism, was sued because he is the leader of an organization listed as the legal operator of a Web site, www.liguededefensejuive.com, that urged readers to attend a planned demonstration against France2 in 2002: "Come demonstrate against the lies of France2," it said, "and the gross manipulation with an award for disinformation to France2 and Charles Enderlin."

Those of you who are used to the free-for-all that is the internet are probably more than a bit perplexed as to what the big deal is here. That this sort of statement could be a cause of action in any court in a country that considers itself to be a modern, developed, progressive nation--not to mention a bastion of liberty--is ludicrous.

Let's put aside for the moment the question of whether the accusations this defendant made against France2 and Enderlin are true, as blogger and historian Richard Landes (and, in the interests of full disclosure, acquaintance and friend of mine) has suggested at his website Second Draft and his blog Augean Stables.

Forget it? Isn't it of the utmost importance? Absolutely of the utmost importance. I happen to believe the evidence is strong that both France2 and Enderlin may have done exactly what Lurçat and the other two defendents have accused them of doing (at the very least the plaintiffs almost certainly lied in their original allegations that the Israelis deliberately killed the boy, and about the amount of footage they had and what it showed; I've written at some length on al Durah/France2 before, here and here.)

I'll be writing more about the many issues involved in these cases (Landes has written a piece on the "justice" involved in the verdict from the first trial, that of Karsenty; he rightly calls it "aristocratic justice"--which, of course, is an oxymoron--and likens it to that initially extended to Dreyfus). But for the moment, I merely stand in awe of the colossal arrogance of France2 and Enderlin, and the contempt they show for freedom of speech and for the right to demonstrate peacably, by the mere act of bringing these lawsuits.

Can you imagine a similar lawsuit brought by CNN, for example, or NPR, in the US? I'm not a fan of the journalistic standards of either organization, but that low they would not go.

Of course, one of the reasons is that US law would not let them; defamation, especially of a public figure, is exceptionally hard to prove under common law rules such as that of NY Times vs. Sullivan, which established the standard that:

The First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials except when statements are made with actual malice (with knowledge that they are false or in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity).

France's justice system has a very different standard, as France2 and Enderlin were well aware before commencing these particular suits. It's also of note--in a sort of poetic, metaphoric way--that in France the trial is being held in a building known as a "palace" (there's that aristocratic echo being sounded again), while Lurçat's association is called "Liberty, Democracy, and Judaism," in what I imagine might be a somewhat ironic commentary on the famous sentiment of the French revolution "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."

What sort of liberty is it that produces a legal system that allows a well-known reporter a cause of action against a private citizen for calling his news report a lie? And what sort of liberty is it that produces a legal system that does away with the presumption of innocence for that defendant? (See pages 13-14 of this document for clarification; it appears to be up to the defendants here to prove Enderlin lied rather than for Enderlin to prove he told the truth and that they acted malaciously, as in the US.)

It's been raining off and on in France ever since I've been here. I've had an excellent trip thus far, absorbing the beauty of the buildings, the people, the fashion, the food (ah, above all the food!) and the general ambience.

But I can't ignore the chill that's in the air here, and I'm not talking about the weather. That a news organization cannot be criticized by a private citizen such as Lurçat (or previous defendent Philippe Karsenty or upcoming defendant Charles Gouz) without such citizens being afraid of being slammed with a lawsuit should rightly send a shiver down the spine of every freedom-loving citizen of the world.

It's no accident, of course, that the law under which Karsenty, Lurçat, and Gouz are being prosecuted is the same one that was used to convict Emile Zola of defamation for his critical role in writing about the Dreyfus affair.

Zola declared:

In making these accusations, I am fully aware that my action comes under Articles 30 and 31 of the law of 29 July 1881 on the press, which makes libel a punishable offense. I deliberately expose myself to that law.

Zola was convicted of libel in 1897; he fled the country but ultimately returned and the charges against him were dismissed. He died a few years later under "mysterious circumstances" and never lived to see Dreyfus exonerated.

But I'll give Zola the final word today. What he said was true then, although the wheels of justice ground slow. I hope his words are as true now as they were then, and that events will move far more quickly toward that desired end:

The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The last time I saw Neo...

...she was traveling.

Actually, for the entire past month I've been traveling far more than is my usual practice--so often I've practically lost count.

But this is the largest of my trips so far. Where am I? There's a hint in the title of this post. Another hint is the time-stamp--why am I uploading this in what appears to be the wee hours of the morning?

Because, in fact, although it's indeed morning here, the hours aren't so very wee. Yes, gentle readers, your intrepid world-traveler and reporter extraordinaire, neo-neocon, is in Paris, the belly of the beast. Although Paris is more like Beauty, despite the fact that rain and clouds are predicted for much of my stay.

After a fairly rapid plane journey (and can somebody please tell me why it takes only a tiny bit longer to cross the six-hour time difference from the Eastern US to France than it takes to cross the continental US, which gives you a mere three-hour difference?) I reached the crowded Charles de Gaulle airport early in the morning on Sunday.

The initial theme of my Paris stay has been: stairs.

As we disembarked from the plane, it was announced that, to get to the main terminal, "you're going to need to be able to climb a couple of stairs." That didn't daunt me, despite an extra-heavy carry-on--I can do stairs. But this turned out to be a full two and a half flights, up all the way rather than down. Call me a spoiled American if you wish (and the French might undoubtedly wish), but I wonder why it is that--despite France's trailblazing history ("The first escalator installed for public use was at the Paris Exposition of 1900"), this century-old miracle doesn't seem to have arrived yet to De Gaulle.

And then there's the elevator, another relatively ancient invention. The one in the lovely and well-situated apartment where I'm staying (a friend's kind hospitality) has a single flaw--it was broken when I arrived. Thus, the stair theme continued as I followed the sweating (and no doubt cursing, had I been able to understand French and/or read his mind) concierge up a full seven (count 'em, sept) flights of stairs, he hauling my far-too-heavy suitcase and I lugging my far-too-heavy carry-on (blame the computer and all its accoutrements) behind.

I've only been here a day, and I've already had a good meal with convivial company, so don't think I'm complaining. I'm not. And the elevator has now been repaired--a model of efficiency, relatively speaking. Efficient and energy-saving, also, are the hallway and stairway lights that are on timers, and helpfully turn themselves off when they decree I've had time enough to do whatever it is I might have been doing--such as climb the stairs faster--plunging me into darkness until I figure out where the tiny glowing light switch is.

My computer works, and it optimistically assumes I want to search Google in French ("Bienvenue dans Firefox 1.0, le nouveau navigateur facile à utiliser de Mozilla") and to emigrate ("Do you want to miss your chance to live and work in the USA?"). I've successfully negotiated the Metro, although not without stopping several people for help. I managed to work my customary magical spell on gadgetry by unaccountably sending the cellphone I was kindly given into "lock" mode (I knew this because a picture of a key appeared on its screen and I could neither make nor receive calls for a while; the instructions to unlock it were--d'accord!--in French).

A wonderful anomaly--this one not without some charm--is the key. I've taken the liberty of photographing it next to an American quarter for scale:

My stay has been great so far (about twenty-four hours), and exciting. So, why am I here? Funny you should ask. I plan, of course, to sightsee (and maybe even shop), but it's a working vacation: I'm doing some interviewing and plan to be writing. Details to emerge later.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

We may suffer harsh winters, but at least we have this

It's autumn in New England. No surprise there. And calendar-worthy fall scenes are a dime a dozen here--have camera, point, and shoot.

But not always. All too often, my own photos turn out to be pedestrian shots of brightly-colored leaves, pretty but nondescript. The colors are never quite as intense as reality, the three-dimensional effect and the light filtering through the foliage not enough like the real thing.

Which is as it should be, I suppose. The real thing is what gets us outside, into that fresh and crisp autumn air--minus the smell of burning leaves, madeleine-like memory of my youth.

Ah, but fortunately, I have friends who are much better photographers than I. Plus they have better cameras, but that's not really their secret. A photographer has to have a certain "eye," and patience, and the ability to "see" what will be in the frame.

So here, without further ado, I present some of my favorites from this year's fall photos taken by a friend:

And then this one, taken at a party at the house of another friend who's fortunate to live on a bay and have this view of sunset:

Which segues to this, as the sun sinks even lower and disappears for another day:

Not a bad place to be on a beautiful autumn eve.

My man Steve is endorsed by none other than Esquire

Steve Beren is one of the very few Washington State Republicans endorsed by Esquire.

Esquire says it's a protest vote against opponent McDermott. But I think it's really because of Beren's sauve sartorial savoir faire:

(Photo purloined from Jeremayakovka.)

Friday, October 20, 2006

Wars, civil and/or religious: Part III (nationalism and Iraq)

The Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 was the last major religious war in Europe, and it was a lulu.

I challenge anyone who's not already a student of European history to wade through that Wikipedia article linked above--it's dense with brain-fogging facts. The gist of the story seems to be that the war was a religious one (Catholic vs. Protestant) but, like most religious wars, it was also a jockeying for power and territory based on regional and other differences. The war could almost be said to have been a mini-World War, because it encompassed so much of Western Europe before it was over, and caused such widespread death and devastation.

The War was ended by the Peace of Westphalia, which was:

...instrumental in laying the foundations for what are even today considered the basic tenets of the sovereign nation-state. Aside from establishing fixed territorial boundaries for many of the countries involved in the ordeal (as well as for the newer ones created afterwards), the Peace of Westphalia changed the relationship of subjects to their rulers. In earlier times, people had tended to have overlapping political and religious loyalties. Now, it was agreed that the citizenry of a respective nation were subjected first and foremost to the laws and whims of their own respective government rather than to those of neighboring powers, be they religious or secular.

So what we have here is a long-term and devastating religious war that splintered Europe for a while but ultimately ended up building the foundations for modern nationalism, an allegiance that transcends religious and ethnic differences and unites the residents of a certain geographical area in a perception of relative unity. Of course, nations often have a predominant (or even state) religious identity, and often consist mainly of a particular ethnic group, but they are virtually always some sort of amalgam, and the most successful nations manage to transcend those internal divisions.

Nationalism, however--even in Europe--is a relatively recent phenomenon, solidifying mostly in the nineteenth century. Before that--in the immortal words of Massachusetts Congressman Tip O'Neill, who said it in a very different context--all politics was local.

How does nationalism relate to the current crisis in Iraq, and to the rest of the Arab world? One aspect of the current struggle is that a certain hefty percentage of the Iraqi population--although we don't know how large a group this is--sees its allegiance as religious rather than national. Saddam exacerbated these divisions by favoring Sunnis and persecuting Shiites, and the early post-war atmosphere perpetuated this pattern, with Sunni-on-Shiite violence predominating. For a while, the calming words of the Shiite cleric Sistani stayed the hand of Shiite retribution, but that's no longer the case, and we do see a cycle of violence and a struggle for power occurring.

This could be countered by nationalism, which is trying to dominate factionalism. That's why the debate as to whether federalism could be a solution in Iraq is such an important one. Federalism is a tool to deal with the unification of a group made of disparate elements: e pluribus unum, after all.

How do nations get born? Some are lucky--they share a language and, more importantly, a sense of being a nation. Nationality doesn't rest on any one characteristic, but is more of a perception: "Many students of nationalism are eventually led to the (almost tautological) conclusion that people belong to a certain nation if they feel that they belong to it."

Nationalism a uniting force that can be countered by two opposing principles: a fracturing one and a pan-uniting one. The first is the fracturing force of regionalism, religious and ethnic and political differences; factors that can splinter an entity that might otherwise be poised to unify or that already was unified under a strongman or outside force (the breakup of Yugoslavia is a good example of the latter, likewise the USSR).

The second principle countering nationalism, the pan-uniting one, exists through allegiances that transcend even that of the nation, and dictate loyalty to a more international group.

Thus, one of the linchpins of anti-Semitism has always been a perception of Jews as an extra-national force of global reach (and evil designs, of course). Another example is one I remember from my youth, when some people objected to the Presidential aspirations of the Catholic JFK because they didn't "want the Pope running the US."

Pan-Arabism, or even unification of the entire umma, has always been a dream for some in the Arab and/or Muslim world. Even Saddam was originally a pan-Arabist, and although he retreated from that overt stance quite early on, he apparently never quite gave up his aspirations to be the dominant power in the Arab world. And of course Iran, likewise, wishes to establish a new pan-Islamic Caliphate under Shiite rather than Sunni rule.

So, paradoxically, some of the conflict in Iraq is of the divisive (or local) variety: various home-grown groups jockeying for position, power, and revenge, while some of it is fueled by the unifying, pan-Muslim vision, which relies on foreign powers such as Iran to stir the pot, feeds into the local groups, and is likewise broken down along Sunni-Shia lines. The countering force to both would be nationalism, federal or otherwise, of a type that respects differences and allows each faction its say and its rights.

The war in Iraq was supposed to help usher in such an era. Some never thought it would be easy (I count myself among them). Some, no doubt, underestimated the difficulties that lay ahead.
As I've written before, dictatorships offer one solution to the dilemma--they can impose nationalism with a strong and tyrannical will, and the ruthless power to back it up, but at great human cost. The other way--the way that's being tried in Iraq--can lead to chaos and civil war, which has other costs.

The United States is somewhat unique--and definitely fortunate--in being a nation whose greatest unifying force (other than geography) is a shared set of ideals and principles, and with a Constitution that aims to establish and protect (relatively successfully, so far, despite the "Bushhitler" proclamations) the rights granted therein.

Our postwar occupations of West Germany and Japan managed, somehow, to counter the forces of anarchy there and allow stable nations to re-establish themselves. The key word might be "re-establish;" both countries had a strong sense of nationality prior to the war (in each case, probably too strong, a fact which helped lead to their aggressiveness in World War II). Both nations had also experienced the devastion of a prolonged world war and utter defeat.

Current opinion is divided on how strong Iraq's sense of nationhood is: whether it was artificially imposed by the somewhat arbitrary division of the Ottoman Empire post-World War I, and then artificially continued by Saddam's dictatorship--or whether is draws on a strong sense of togetherness based on an ancient and proud history. In dispute, as well, is whether Western notions of human rights can be grafted onto it.

One thing is for certain: there are many strong forces trying to dictate otherwise, who are not interested in a unified Iraq with a strong constitution that guarantees the human rights of all its inhabitants.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Wars, civil and/or religious: Part II (religious war)

We in the modern west have grown unused to the concept of religious war. In fact, the very term seems un-PC, like the word "crusade." Wars of religion have come to be regarded as mere screens for other motivators: socioeconomic inequalities, political power struggles, racial differences.

It's probably true that few, if any, religious wars have ever been purely religious. But we cannot and should not ignore the force of religious differences as one potent motivator, both in the past and today, for wars. And please, don't subscribe to the notion that religion is therefore the root of all evil and all war; it most decidedly is not. But ideas have consequences, and religions are ideas with both consequences and legs.

I don't know about you, but I was the one snoozing at my desk when we took up subjects like the Thirty Years' War in European History during my junior year of high school. Catholics at war with Protestants? What? The Huguenots? Who? In my community, the Protestants and the Catholics were on good terms (although, come to think of it, there were virtually no Protestants where I grew up--it was all Italian, all the time), and the idea of a religious war between them was preposterous.

This was, of course, shortly before the resumption of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, in which the reality of war between Protestants and Catholics was restored. But this seemed a local skirmish that had less to do with differences of worship and more to do with what group would hold the reins of political power.

The split between Sunni and Shiite was even more remote. But it clearly has also had political as well as ideological/religious elements: the Shiite felt disempowered since 938 (!!) by the disappearance of the Twelfth Iman and the ascension to power of Sunni clerics for the next--well, for the next millennium, until the (Sunni) caliphate fell at the end of the Ottoman Empire. The ascendance of the Ayatollah Khomeini to the reins of Shiite dictatorship in Iran was, among other things, a turning point for the Shiite in terms of regaining power in the heretofore Sunni-dominated Muslim world.

Sunnis, on the other hand, experienced the loss of the Ottoman Caliphate as a nearly mortal blow, and have been struggling for a replacement ever since. Thus, the rise of various fundamentalist Sunni movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which was part of the inspiration for al Qaeda. In a post-9/11 explanatory tape, Bin Laden himself cited the end of the Ottoman Empire as a catastrophe for which 9/11 was meant to be payback.

So, there are two religious conflicts going on in the Muslim world: a longstanding intra-religious one (Sunni/Shiite) that goes back to the tenth century and has heated up with the fall of the Caliphate, and a longstanding inter-religious war that goes back even further, but has recently been heated up with the fall of the Caliphate as well because that fall has been attributed to Western influence. Furthermore, both strains are outraged at what is seen as the decadence of the Western world, an influence felt more and more by Muslims due to the pace of modern life and communications, as well as actual hot wars in places such as Iraq, and the presence of the non-Muslim state of Israel on a tiny sliver of land that had been in Ottoman hands for centuries.

So, the conflict is nothing new; it just seemed quiescent for a while, and that calm was illusory. The relative "stability" afforded by Saddam Hussein's regime was the opposition his Sunni-led (although Shiite-majority) state provided to Iran's power. Those who criticized our invasion of Iraq on the realpolitik grounds that it would upset that particular balance may have been correct, although it's too soon to tell how things will ultimately play out.

(By the way, it's interesting that many of the same people on the Left who criticized the Iraq invasion on those grounds also criticized--ex-post-facto, as best I can determine--the realpolitik of our support for Saddam against Iran during the Iraq/Iran war of the 80s. Of course, consistency was never one of the Left's strong suits. But I digress.)

These forces in the Muslim world may be destined to battle it out, as they have for a long time. The difference is that today their battle affects us directly. In some ways it really doesn't matter to us whether Sunni or Shiite win, because the danger comes (as it often does) from the extremists and jihadis on both sides, and it's hard to judge whose are worse.

For the Sunnis, those extremists have been concentrated mostly in the form of terrorists, who tend to operate extra-nationally, across many states, and without being at the helm of one (ever since the fall of the Taliban, that is, when they lost the stronghold of state-sponsored Sunni terrorism, Afghanistan). Shiite extremism, on the other hand, has for decades been centered in a state, Iran, which has sponsored terrorists such as the Shiite Hezbollah, and which clearly has present-day nuclear aspirations.

Saddam was an anomaly, in a way. He was a Sunni in charge of a Shiite state, and he persecuted and murdered a large number of the latter, whom he feared. He was a vicious dictator in the mold of secular leaders such as Stalin (whom he revered and emulated), but he was not above using religion for his own purposes. He constituted a threat to the region during the Gulf War, was in violation of countless UN resolutions, and was thought by the entire world community prior to the US invasion of Iraq to have nuclear and chemical weapons, which would have posed a danger to his neighbors--and to the west, if he'd sold them to terrorists. Saddam was both a tyrant and a loose cannon, and it seemed to many to have been a reasonable roll of the dice at the time to take him out.

Like it or not (and most of us don't like it), ever since the late 70s, with the ascendancy of the Ayatollahs' theocracy in Iran (and perhaps even before), we have been intimately and inextricably engaged in the intra- and inter-religious wars going on in the Muslim world. The current Iraq crisis is one chapter in those wars. It won't be the last, nor is it likely to be the worst. And yes, indeed, those wars are both religous and political, as religious wars have always been.

[If I maintain the energy and inclination, tomorrow may feature Part III, on Europe's religious Protestant/Catholic wars. Or there may be another part, on the rise of nationalism, and what makes a nation a nation. Or none of the above. We'll see.]

The Sanity Squad takes on Congress and Kim

The new Sanity Squad podcast is up at Pajamas Media.

This week, myself and my colleagues (Dr. Sanity, Siggy, and Shrink) on the fearless Squad squash the squalid squabbling squalor of Congress; as well as sanely, and with our customary sangfroid, slamming the sanguinary folks who think sanctions against North Korea, sans teeth, will do much good.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Wars, civil and/or religious: Part I (civil war--nothing civil about it)

The thread on Iraqi federalism inspired a debate in the comments section about whether Iraq is facing a civil war or a religious war, or neither, or both.

Perhaps it's just a question of semantics. We could (and no doubt will) quibble over each and every word in the alternate definitions: "civil," "religious," and "war." But I think we can all agree that the sectarian, religious, and ethnic violence there is greater than desired, and that it's difficult to see how it will end in the near future.*

So, how can we get perspective on what's happening in Iraq right now? One thing that's occurring represents a common phenomenon--as I wrote in this post on Russia and this one on North Korea--which is that, when dictatorships are removed, we face the spectre of chaos and dueling for position between rival factions now released from previous supression.

Dictatorships not only can make the trains run on time (although neither the USSR nor North Korea were/are famous for that), they put a firm lid of tyranny on the simmering tensions of ethnic and religious and other strife, and create an illusion of harmony. Then, when that lid is removed, the pot boils over. In addition--and especially if dictatorships are in power for a long time--they stir up the desire for revenge for old grievances perpetrated by the regime itself.

In Iraq, the pot is boiling, or at least simmering. The split seems to be along Sunni-Shiite lines, which indicates a religious war. But it's not quite that simple (I'll deal in greater depth with this question, and discuss religious wars in general, in Part II, tomorrow).

The Sunni-Shiite split occurred almost at the beginning of Islam, and Iraq is far from the only place it's being played out. To simplify: Shiites dominate Iran, and Sunnis are more numerous in most Arab states (although not in Iraq, where Shiites constitute about two-thirds to the Sunni one-third). But the division is far from clear, and tribes, which also dominate the region, can be quite mixed, as Saudi Prince Turki has observed:

"...in most of Iraq the links and interlinks of Sunni and Shiites go far beyond the efforts to drive them apart," Prince Turki said.

Many Iraqi tribes and clans contain both Sunnis and Shiites, and there are many Sunni-Shiite intermarriages, he noted, and the tribal and clan and personal links cross sectarian lines.

"In practical terms, how could such a civil war happen?" he asked. "It is practically impossible to divide Iraq into sectarian regions. It would mean mass emigration and ethnic cleansing, and a lot of killing between families and tribal groupings.

But that's often true of areas where civil wars erupt. In fact, it's one of the great tragedies of civil war itself. One has only to look at our own bloody Civil War, in which brother literally fought brother, and members of the same graduating class at West Point were generals on either side of the divide, to see how very possible it is.

To give one more example, the Tutsis and Hutus involved in the terrible genocide in Rwanda (mostly Hutus killing Tutsis, but moderate Hutus were also at risk) were commonly presented as sharply delineated ethnic groups. But in actuality this was far from the case:

Many researchers point out that both groups speak the same language, have a history of intermarriage and share many cultural characteristics. Traditionally, the differences between the two groups were occupational rather than ethnic...Tutsi can often be physically distinguished as taller than Hutu, but according to the vice president of the National Assembly Laurent Nkongoli, frequently "[y]ou can't tell us apart, we can't tell us apart."

So one thing we can safely say is that the divisions in such wars are murky, and that family ties and long-term interactions don't preclude the explosion of bitter and terrible violence.

Another thing we can say is that civil wars are exceedingly common, even though the majority of them receive far less publicity than the present conflict in Iraq. Take a look at this fascinating article by Monica Duffy Toft, associate professor of Pulic Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Toft discusses whether the present conflict in Iraq qualifies as a civil war. Short answer: yes, it meets all the criteria, which are: (1) dispute over whom will govern; (2) [at least] two groups of organized combatants; (3) the state one of the combatants; (4) at least 1,000 battle deaths per year on average; (5) ratio of total deaths at least 95 percent to 5 percent for the two sides; (6) fought within the boundaries of an internationally recognized state.

But what's most fascinating about Toft's article--at least to me--is its conclusion, which is simply a list of all the civil wars that have darkened the world since 1940.

To save you the trouble of following the link, I hereby reproduce that list. You may get tired of scrolling down, but please bear with me:

Afghanistan I Civil War: Mujahideen, Taliban 1978 2001

Algeria I War of Independence 1954 1962

Algeria II Opposition to Bella 1963 1963

Algeria III Fundamentalists 1992 .

Angola I War of Independence 1961 1974

Angola IIa Angolan Civil War 1975 1994

Angola IIb UNITA Warfare 1998 2002

Argentina Coup 1955 1955

Azerbaijan/USSR Nagorno-Karabakh 1988 1994

Bangladesh Chittagong Hill 1972 1997

Bolivia I Popular Revolt 1946 1946

Bolivia II Bolivian Revolution 1952 1952

Brazzaville Ia Elections 1993 1993

Brazzaville Ib Factional Warfare 1997 1997

Burma I Communist Revolt 1948 1989

Burma II Karens 1948 .

Burma III Shan 1959 .

Burma IV Kachins 1960 1994

Burundi Ia Hutu Coup Attempt 1965 1965

Burundi Ib Hutu Rebellion 1972 1972

Burundi Ic Hutu/Tutsi 1988 1988

Burundi Id Hutu/Tutsi 1991 1991

Burundi Ie Hutu/Tutsi 1993 2003

Cambodia Ia Khmer Rouge 1970 1975

Cambodia Ib Viet Intervention 1978 1991

Cameroon War of Independence 1955 1960

Chad FROLINAT 1965 1997

Chile Army Revolt 1973 1973

China I Com Rev: Final Phase 1945 1949

China III Cultural Revolution 1966 1969

China IIa Tibet 1950 1951

China IIb Tibet 1954 1959

Colombia I La Violencia 1948 1958

Colombia II FARC 1964 .

Costa Rica Civil War 1948 1948

Cuba Cuban Revolution 1956 1959

Cyprus Ia Greek/Turk Clashes 1963 1964

Cyprus Ib Coup/Turk Invasion 1974 1974

Domin Republic Dominican Civil War 1965 1966

Egypt Free Officers' Coup 1952 1952

El Salvador FMLN/FDR 1979 1992

Ethiopia I Eritrea 1961 1993

Ethiopia II Tigray 1975 1991

Ethiopia III Ogaden 1977 1978

Georgia I South Ossetia 1990 1992

Georgia II Abkhazia 1992 1993

Greece Greek Civil War 1944 1949

Guatemala I Coup 1954 1954

Guatemala II Guatemalan Civil War 1960 1996

GuineaBissau I War of Independence 1963 1974

GuineaBissau II Coup 1998 1999

India II Hyderabad 1948 1948

India III Naga Revolt 1956 1997

India IV Sikh Insurrection 1982 1993

India Ia Part/Kash/In-Pak War 1946 1949

India Ib Kashmir 1965 1965

India Ic Kashmir 1988 .

Indonesia I War of Independence 1945 1949

Indonesia III Acheh Revolt 1953 1959

Indonesia IV PRRI Revolt 1958 1961

Indonesia V PKI Coup Attempt 1965 1966

Indonesia VI East Timor 1975 1999

Iran I Kurds/Mahabad 1946 1946

Iran IIa Iranian Revolution 1978 1979

Iran IIb NCR/Mojahedin 1981 1982

Iraq I Army Revolt 1958 1958

Iraq II Mosul Revolt 1959 1959

Iraq IIIa Kurds 1961 1970

Iraq IIIb Kurds 1974 1975

Iraq IIIc Kurds 1980 1991

Iraq IV Shi'ite Insurrection 1991 1993

Israel/Palest Unrest/War of Indep 1945 1949

Jordan Palestinians 1970 1971

Kenya I Mau Mau 1952 1956

Korea Korean War 1950 1953

Laos Pathet Lao 1959 1973

Lebanon Ia First Civil War 1958 1958

Lebanon Ib Second Leb Civ War 1975 1990

Liberia NPFL 1989 1997

Madagascar MDRM/Independence 1947 1948

Malaysia Malayan Emergency 1948 1960

Moldova Trans-Dniester Slavs 1991 1997

Morocco I War of Independence 1952 1956

Morocco II Western Sahara 1975 1991

Mozambique I War of Independence 1964 1975

Mozambique II RENAMO 1976 1992

Namibia War of Independence 1966 1990

Nicaragua Rev/Contra Insurgen 1978 1990

Nigeria I Biafra 1967 1970

Nigeria II Maitatsine 1980 1984

Pakistan I Bangladesh 1971 1971

Pakistan II Baluchi Rebellion 1973 1977

Paraguay Coup Attempt 1947 1947

Peru Shining Path 1980 1999

Philippines I Huks 1946 1954

Philippines II NPA Insurgency 1969 .

Philippines IIIa Moro Rebellion 1972 1996

Philippines IIIb Moro Rebellion 2000 .

Romania Romanian Revolution 1989 1989

Russia Ia First Chechen War 1994 1996

Russia Ib Second Chechen War 1999 .

Rwanda Ia First Tutsi Invasion 1963 1964

Rwanda Ib Tutsi Invasion/Genoc 1990 1994

Sierra Leone RUF 1991 2002

Somalia Clan Warfare 1988 .

South Africa Bl/Whit, Bl/Bl 1983 1994

South Korea Yosu Sunch'on Revolt 1948 1948

Sri Lanka II Tamil Insurgency 1983 .

Sri Lanka Ia JVP I 1971 1971

Sri Lanka Ib JVP II 1987 1989

Sudan Ia Anya Nya 1955 1972

Sudan Ib SPLM 1983 2005

Syria Sunni v. Alawites 1979 1982

Tajikistan Tajik Civil War 1992 1997

Tunisia War of Independence 1952 1956

Turkey Kurds 1984 .

USSR I Ukraine 1942 1950

USSR II Lithuania 1944 1952

Uganda I Buganda 1966 1966

Uganda II War in the Bush 1980 1986

Vietnam I French-Indochina War 1946 1954

Vietnam II Vietnam War 1957 1975

Yemen Southern Revolt 1994 1994

Yemen North I Coup 1948 1948

Yemen North II N. Yemeni Civil War 1962 1970

Yemen South S. Yemeni Civil War 1986 1986

Yugoslavia I Croatian Secession 1991 1995

Yugoslavia II Bosnian Civil War 1992 1995

Yugoslavia III Kosovo 1998 1999

Zaire/Congo I Katanga/Stanleyville 1960 1965

Zaire/Congo II Post-Mobutu 1996 .

Zimbabwe Front for Lib of Zim 1972 1979

You probably have noted quite a few things. First, the list is incredibly long. Second, these are virtually all third-world countries. Third, many of them have had not just one, but a long series of civil wars. Fourth, Iraq has had six previous civil wars since 1940.

The present one would be the seventh. And yes, it's happening on our watch. But the forces that are represented there are the forces that have been long brewing in Iraq. Similar forces are brewing in many unsettled third-world countries (and sometimes it seems that most third-world countries are unsettled).

In addition, some of these civil wars on the list are also proxy international wars, in which foreign powers ally with one segment or other to try to influence matters to the benefit of that foreign power. There's an argument to be made that the present war in Iraq is at least partly just such a proxy war between the US and Iran, just as the Vietnamese war represented (as did so many civil wars of that era) a struggle between Communism and the US.

[Tomorrow, Part II: religious wars]

*[Another thing we can quibble about is whether the present violence in Iraq should have been foreseen, and what (if anything) could have been done to nip it in the bud. I've put this question in a footnate to try to avoid derailing the thread into an argument about these old and oft-debated questions. For myself, I think the shortness and ease of the original, official war was clearly illusory; I fully expected a longer-drawn-out war at the beginning, with violence of the street-to-street variety. And, for the record, I think many errors of judgment were made (and continue to be made) in terms of clamping down more harshly on elements such as Sadr, back when he was first consolidating power; the perception of impending anarchy gripped the nation from the first postwar days. And yet I've never seen alternatives (more troops, etc., or even leaving Saddam in power) as simple solutions--they create their own, alternative, problems.]

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Using Korean refugees as leverage on China? It's a thought, anyway

The current crisis in North Korea shines a harsh light on all the usual solutions and finds them wanting.

Sanctions? As the world-weary and resigned Allahpundit writes: Symbolic sanctions are a perfect non-solution to an unsolvable problem.

Yes, the UN Security Council acted with surprising alacrity; but no, the sanctions lack the economic pressure that China and South Korea could bring to bear, as well as enforcement measures--for example, it makes searching North Korean ships for banned material discretionary rather than obligatory.

As this editorial in the Australian cogently states: That this pusillanimous policy is seen as a sign that the UN is determined to get tough with North Korea demonstrates how little the world has come to expect from the Security Council.

"The Security Council." One of those names that has become Orwellian, doing the opposite of what it purports. No real security to be found there-.

So what's left? With main player China uncooperative in knocking off Kim Jong-il, and no one wanting to anger the North Koreans or to destablize the region through military action, are we back to the Fifties, as Dennis Byrne writes? Is the MADness of Mutually Assured Destruction our only hope?

And would Kim even be amenable to the arguments of MAD, considering that it's based on leaders having some sort of regard for the continuing existence of the people of their own nations? One wonders just how mad Kim Jong-il is--because, despite its name, MAD is based on the premise that leaders are at least somewhat rational.

John O'Sullivan, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, has a different idea. He finds all the current "solutions" wanting, but suggests a possible way to force the Chinese to "turn the Chinese key in the lock."

Take a look. The short version of his premise is that Korean refugees to China are routinely returned to be worked to death in their land of origin, a Chinese policy that constitutes a violation of UN human rights treaties China itself has signed.

So what, you say, and rightly so. What good do those treaties do anyway? O'Sullivan thinks, however, that there's a chance that something worthwhile can come of them:

There is a large and growing left-right coalition of Korean Americans, traditional human rights groups and evangelical churches. They were the political forces behind the North Korean Human Rights Act passed two years ago by Congress...They will now be raising the issue of North Korean refugees in Washington, on TV, in churches, in rallies and on the Internet.

North Korean refugees will eventually become a bipartisan political issue on the scale of the plight of Soviet Jews in the 1970s. Just as that issue produced the Jackson-Vanik amendment, forcing the Soviets to choose between allowing their emigration or losing access to the U.S. market, so the plight of North Korean refugees will eventually present China with a similar choice. And trade with America is vastly larger and more important to a fast-growing capitalist China than it was to a stagnant and impoverished Soviet Union.

O'Sullivan realizes, of course, that China could retaliate by "selling its U.S. bonds and provoking a fiscal crisis and a trade war simultaneously." But he concludes that China's interests lie in installing a regime in North Korea that isn't so much of a loose cannon as the present one, and this pressure might just help it to realize that. America's interests, of course, lie in that direction as well. It's a scenario in which everybody would win except Kim Jong-il.

O'Sullivan concludes:

...if Beijing were to make a few telephone calls to its favorite generals in Pyongyang, suggesting they would benefit from his overthrow and the gradual liberalization of his regime, it could advance its own interests and seek some reward from Washington, Tokyo and the U.N. for being an international good neighbor.

A consummation devoutly to be wished.

So, how realistic is this option? And how dangerous? Not very, and somewhat. But then, consider those alternatives...

Monday, October 16, 2006

Dean calls me out

Dean Esmay has publicly called me out. And when Dean calls me out, that means I need to step up to the plate. And take a swing.

And stop making stupid puns, and instead predict who's going to win the Mets-Cards National League Championship Series, as Dean has requested.

Dean predicts the Mets. And last night they tied up the series, so perhaps he's right. But I have a confession to make: I haven't a clue, because I haven't followed baseball for two years.

How can that be? After all, aren't I a baseball fan? Yes indeed, I am, as you can see by this post of mine, which Dean may have recalled when he issued his challenge. I learned to love the game when my son insisted on playing it and I was forced to watch it and learn its rules and lore--the beauty of a team sport that highlights individual moments: waiting, tension, drama, and then the sudden explosion of action. The oxymoronic but satisfying fact that baseball is the most quantifiable and statistics-bound of all sports, and yet at the same time the most graceful.

The arc of the home run swing. The satisfying thwack of a wooden bat hitting the ball in just the right spot at just the right time--even though if you or I were standing in the batter's box we'd hardly even see it, but merely hear it whiz by and then pop! into the catcher's glove. The slide that kicks up the dust. The swipe of the tag. The astounding, bounding leap to catch the ball that would otherwise go into the stands.

I definitely did my time as a baseball aficionado. From the 70s onward I was that saddest of sacks, the Red Sox fan, spring and summer elation turning to fall dejection with the same regularity as the leaves' transformation from green to orange to brown to fallen.

How can that be, when I'm a native New Yorker, and the Red Sox's nemesis was always the Yankees? It's true that I grew up in New York in the Yankees' classic heyday, but they held no interest for me. I didn't like them for precisely the same reason most people rooted for them, which was that they were perennial winners. To me, that was no fun. There was no drama, no pathos.

I wanted a rags-to-riches story, not a riches-to-greater-riches to ever-more-boring-riches one. And I got it in my twenties when I moved to Boston and found the Red Sox.

It was love at first sight, and I kept my vigil till that fabled fall of 2004, when the impossible happened and the Red Sox won the World Series, handily. All of Boston--and most of New England north of that epic Yankees/Sox dividing line of Hartford--breathed a sigh (or shouted a shout) of blessed relief.

Ever since then, I haven't really followed the game. And I never really followed the National League at all (shh! don't tell Dean!)

So the Mets and the Cards don't mean a whole lot to me, I'm afraid. But I know who I'd be rooting for, if I were rooting. It would be the Mets, because they're the underdogs. And I'm a sucker for underdogs.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Iraq: federalism and/or bust?

The Iraqi Parliament has passed a law allowing for the establishment of federal regions in Iraq.

This isn't the sort of thing that makes good sound bites or titillating headlines. Its real effect on the course of history in Iraq remains to be seen, but speculation is rife. Is it good for the US? Or for Iran? Or, for that matter, for the principal country involved, Iraq? Will it lead to fragmentation and Balkanization of the region, with three countries at odds: a Kurdish one, a Sunni one, and a possibly Iran-dominated Shiite one? Or will it lead to a unified country with autonomous but integrated and functioning parts?

After all, the US itself is a republic. Our central government has become so strong that we sometimes forget how relatively weak it was at the beginning, and how powerful the separate state identities. After all, it was only a century and a half ago (and less than a century at the time I was born) that we fought an exceptionally bloody and costly civil war to decide--among other things--just this very question of the autonomy of various regions with opposed points of view.

Wretchard writes:

One ought to distinguish between an Iraq in three warring pieces and an Iraq of three federal pieces. I am by no means persuaded that a federation is dead. And the main reason is oil. The Kurds need to ship their oil to markets and this will be difficult, if not impossible without coming to some sort of arrangement with the Sunnis and Shi'a. The Sunnis for their part need to get a share of revenue from the Shi'a and the Kurds. Without some federal government structure through which they can negotiate their differences, little can be achieved.

Wretchard goes on to state in his own comments section (for some reason I could not make the link work; his is the fourth comment in the thread) that Iraq was always known to be headed for some form of federalism because of the relative balance in the three sections of the country. I recall reading as much, myself, almost from the start: that the natural form the Iraqi state would take would have to be federalist.

This 2004 document, for example, written by Dawn Brancati and appearing in the Spring 2004 issue of the Washington Quarterly, is a lengthy and academic discussion (which I've only briefly and partially skimmed) that argues the benefits--and in fact, the necessity--of federalism for Iraq. This is a much shorter version of the same argument: that a too-strongly centralized government in Iraq would be likely to point the way to a new tyranny, and that federalism wouldn't necessarily fracture the country but could unite in the only viable way: loosely.

Federalism is the way our own country dealt with the knotty problem of unifying disparate and sometimes clashing elements. Of course, Iraq is far from being the US after the American Revolution. For one thing, it has a far bloodier and more traumatic history. For another, it lacks the US's natural protection from neighboring countries with a huge agenda. For still another, it is divided much more along religious lines.

Under Saddam, Iraq was a country with a Shiite majority ruled by tyrannical members of the Sunni minority. After the fall of Saddam and without federalism, it would likely be run by the majority Shiites if people voted along religious lines, possibly under the strong and tyrannical influence of Iran. With federalism, it may break into three factions, one of them run by the majority Shiites, possibly under the strong and tyrannical influence of Iran, but needing to cooperate with the others to get things done. Which is better, which is worse?

If you bother to read the comments in Wretchard's thread on the subject, you'll find arguments on both sides. This could be another disastrous step in the process of bloody civil war. Or it could be part of a long-drawn out journey towards a more stable and functional Iraq. I don't know; Wretchard says he doesn't know, and of course no one knows, although someone will be proven right some day with the hindsight of 20/20 vision.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Daniel Pearl's killer: all the perfumes of Arabia

Remember Daniel Pearl? His kidnapping and brutal murder in the winter of 2002 sent shock waves throughout this country, back in a time when we were still relatively shockable.

The still shots released of Pearl during his captivity reinforced the idea that somehow we knew him, even though we didn't. He looked so intensely and immensely likeable--friendly, intelligent, humorous--and the reports of friends, colleagues, and family painted a picture that only accentuated that impression.

Pearl met his death by beheading. The manner of his death seemed especially cruel, medieval, and barbaric--and it was, and it was meant to be. That shocked us further. It meant that even though many of us thought at the time that we knew this enemy, it turned out that we really didn't know this enemy. Not yet.

Well, we know more now. Beheadings became relatively commonplace, and videos were often part of the brutal PR game, the marriage of ancient bloodthirstiness with modern media savvy. Who would have thought that beheadings would be used as a recruitment tool? But it's no longer any sort of surprise.

The manner of death matters. Pearl suffered greatly, and it massively increased the suffering of his family to know how he died, and to know that millions around the globe were watching it with glee and rejoicing.

But in another sense it hardly mattered: Pearl would have been just as dead, just as lost to his family, if he'd been given a relatively humane lethal injection.

And now it turns out that there's another way in which the manner of Pearl's death may end up mattering: the video made by the killers, in which only the hands of the murderer were seen, appears to have led to the identification of the man who actually wielded the blade.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, captured in Pakistan in March of 2003, was apparently not content to merely mastermind death in this case; it seems he wanted a direct hands-on experience. Here are some of KSM's exploits. It's been known for quite a while that KSM was involved in the Pearl kidnapping, but an analysis of his hands while in captivity and a comparison to those in the beheading video has implicated him as the actual murderer.

KSM, who is a Pakistani-Kuwaiti national, was originally held and interrogated in a prison or prisons of unknown and disputed location, with CIA involvement. His interrogation may or may not have involved physically coercive techniques such as waterboarding. But we can be pretty sure it involved some sort of stress, if only psychological. KSM supposedly confessed to Pearl's murder, "admitting without remorse that he personally severed Pearl's head and telling interrogators he had to switch knives after the first one 'got dull.'"

"Without remorse;" no Lady Macbeth, he. Although KSM's hands are far more blood-stained, he's not looking for the perfumes of Arabia to sweeten them.

And now he makes his home in Guantanamo. That much is certain. In fact, last night--before I'd read the piece about KSM's implication in Pearl's beheading--I heard on the news that the International Red Cross had visited him recently there.

KSM now gets three square meals a day and a chance to communicate with his relatives. And soon, perhaps, he'll even get a chance to face charges in a military tribunal, now that Congress has allowed such trials to be held.

I'm looking forward to KSM facing justice, and I agree that a military tribunal is the way to go. KSM is not an ordinary criminal, but a war criminal, and must be treated as such. It was true at Nuremberg, and it's true now.

Such remedies are flawed, but they're the best we have here on earth. What would real justice for KSM be? We must leave that to the great beyond. KSM, no doubt, believes it will be heaven and the seventy-two virgins. Others believe otherwise. I frankly state I do not know. But earthly justice can't come soon enough.

[I've written before, at length, here , about the complex question of torture--or even milder forms of coercion--for terrorists.]

Powered by Blogger