The New Ace of Spades?

My wife bought me a deck of Baath Party playing cards. You know, the ones with Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti as the Ace of Spades. The deck sits on our coffee table in the living room, and I like to flip through it every now and then. It’s a satisfying experience, rather like seeing Slobodan Milosovic in chains in the Hague, or seeing Manuel Noriega’s Florida prison mug shot.

So perhaps you’ll understand why I think this is pathetic.

Howard Dean Surprises

Interesting article in the Washington Post about Howard Dean.

The challenge for Dean now is to transition from champion of the antiwar, anti-Bush left to electable Democrat without losing his steam and solid liberal base, according to Democratic strategists.

That will be a challenge, since he’s already alienated me and a whole lot of other Democrats. And making the right noises isn’t enough. He needs to be genuine. I’ll see right through him if he is not.

This transition is no easy task for the most outspoken critic of the Iraqi war…

No kidding.


Dean insisted he is tougher than Bush on national defense, even if he opposed the war in Iraq. He said he supported the Persian Gulf War, the attack on Afghanistan and, unlike Bush, wants to confront Saudi Arabia over its ties to terrorist groups. “Our oil money goes to the Saudis, where it is recycled and some of it is recycled to Hamas and two fundamentalist schools which teach small children to hate Americans, Christians and Jews,” Dean said. “This president will not confront the Saudis.”


I can give Bush some slack on the Saudis. For a while.

We were stuck with troops and a base on their soil. We needed to move the base and get the troops out. And Saddam Hussein’s ongoing threat to the Saudi Arabia’s oil fields made that impossible.

Now we can move. And we are moving.

Howard Dean needs to acknowledge this. Moving our troops from Saudi to Iraq is what makes Dean’s sought for confrontation possible.

President Bush must acknowledge this, too. He can only put this off for so long. Bush may have a plan. If so he’d better start talking.

Also, I want to hear what Dean would actually do about Saudi Arabia. Bad-mouthing the House of Saud isn’t good enough.

If his answer is a good one, and if Bush keeps playing the role of their lawyer, Howard Dean will keep me on my toes.

Come on, Howard. I’m listening. Wow me. Show me what you got.

The Argentine’s Ice Box

A work of fiction.

(Note: This is the longest piece I have ever published on this site. If you want a printable version, I think the best option is to copy and paste the text into word processing software and print it from there.)

The Argentine’s Ice Box

A short story by Michael J. Totten

If you walk into a restaurant named Henry’s and find a man sitting alone at a table who is from anywhere outside the Patagonian desert, you’ll spot him as an outsider even if you’re an outsider yourself. It’s in the eyes, the posture, and the set of the mouth.

So when I opened the door and saw Andre in the corner with his rumpled button-up shirt, scribbling in a notebook under a pair of reading glasses, I knew I had found my companion for the evening. The bartender and other patrons flicked their eyes at me, just long enough to peg me as a foreigner, but quickly enough to show indifference. A man throwing darts by himself sized me up as he threw a bulls eye. But Andre looked at me over his glasses and raised his eyebrows. It was almost like a plea.

“Puedo sentir?” I asked? May I sit?

“Sure,” Andre said.

“Oh, you do speak English,” I said. “I thought you might.”

“I knew you would,” he said. “Your accent is terrible.”

“I’m used to Cuban Spanish,” I said. “I spent three months in Cienfuegos writing a book. I finally got used to the garbled accent, and now I’m ruined everywhere else.”

“Everywhere else, huh? Sounds like you get around. Sit down. Please. The bartender will come over.”

I sat. The chair was made of hard wood but was oddly comfortable, as if it were so old and so used it was polished perfectly to fit the human form. Everything seemed old in this country. I could hardly believe it was Argentina. It looked and felt like a wandering outpost of Europe.

“I’m Neal,” I said, and put out my hand.

“Andre,” he said, and shook my hand limply.

“Quite a place,” I said. “I must admit I’m surprised to find another American here.”

“Everyone here is American,” he said. “This is South America.”

“You know what I mean,” I said. “I’m supposed to say United Statesean? Estoy de los Estados Unidos, I tell the locals. They’re funny that way. They insist they’re Americans, and they insist they’re Europeans. They can’t be both, and I’m not sure they can be either.”

“They’re both,” he said. “I’ve been to every Latin American country except Mexico, and Argentina is by far the most European. Buenos Aires is more European than London.”

“Every country except Mexico?” I said. “Seriously?”

“Yeah,” Andre said, and fidgeted. Then he relaxed and leaned back in his chair, as if to apologize without speaking. “It’s been done to death.”

“More tourists visit Mexico than any other country in the world,” I said.

“Egg-zactly,” he said.

“I don’t think I’ve met anyone who travels as much as you. Except for me. I’m a travel writer. I go everywhere.”

The dart-thrower looked at me over his shoulder. His hair was golden, his eyes blue as submerged ice. He gave me that look I so often get in Eastern Europe, the Balkan Stare that says You aren’t from here, who the hell are you? The quickest way to dispel it is to bellow out loud and ask if anyone speaks English. No one ever answers, but at least they stop staring.

“Hello there,” I said to the dart-thrower. He ignored me and squinted at the board.

Andre wiped his face with his napkin and folded it neatly in his lap.

“Travel writer,” he finally said. “That supposed to be funny?”

“Why would it be funny? It’s my job. I visit remote places in the world, places no one else goes, and write stories and essays about them.”

He twisted up his face. “You’re making fun of me,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I said, and laughed nervously.

He stared at me as the dart-thrower stared, just like the xenophobic Serbs outside of Belgrade.

Then I got it. It clicked.

“You’re a travel writer, too,” I said. “No shit. What are the odds?”

“I was here first,” he said. “You saw me. I was sitting here when you came in.”

“So what?” I said.

“So we can’t both write about it. Only one of us can do this town. Go to Tierra del Fuego.”

“Tierra del Fuego has been done already,” I said. “Lots of people have written about it.”

“Go to Punta Arenas,” he said. “Go to Jujuy. I don’t care. But, you can’t do Esquel.”

Surely he was an amateur. He didn’t understand how the market worked, who the readership was.

“Look,” I said. “No one will know we both wrote about this place. Not until after the stories come out. Even then hardly anyone will read both of them. And if they do, they won’t care. We just divvy up the markets. You send to one half, I send to the other.”

“Now you look,” he said. “I only write about places that no one else has written about. It’s my gig, my angle, my selling point.”

“Well, I do the same damn thing,” I said. “Shit. I’m surprised I haven’t run into you yet. There are only so many places left in the world.”

“What’s your last name?” he said. I told him mine, and he told me his. Neither one of us had ever heard of the other.

“Liar,” he said. “How could you possibly write about a bunch of remote places and I’ve never heard of you?”

The dart-thrower blew out his breath. Everyone in the room could hear us, but I could tell the dart-thrower understood English. He had that look about him. He was attentive but he pretended he was ignoring us.

“Look,” I said. “I read the travel stuff. But I don’t read all of it. It’s not possible. Honestly, I usually just assume no one has written about some place I want to go. You can’t read everything. Let’s just admit that we’re both behind on our homework. For all we know, Paul Theroux already wrote about this place.”

Andre put his head in his hands and moaned.

“What’s the last place you did?” I said. “Before you came here?”

He eyed me like a rat.

“Come on,” I said. “You tell me yours, and I’ll tell you mine.”

The room was cool, even cold, but his forehead glistened with sweat. He wiped his face with his napkin again and then slapped it down on his thigh.

“Northern Iceland,” he said. “I went to Grimsey. I finished the piece last night in my room.”

“I did that one last year,” I said. “Granta runs it next issue.”

Andre banged the table with his fist and flipped his spoon on the floor. Everyone stared. The bartender stopped wiping a glass with a cloth.

“All right, goddamnit,” he said. “Where was the last place you went?”

I wanted to lie to him. Make up some place I was sure he’d already been, just to drive him crazier. I was enjoying this, but I had no idea where he’d been.

“Magadan,” I said. “The old Soviet gulag town.”

He snickered. “I wrote about Magadan three years ago. It was published two years ago.”

Was he lying? He didn’t tell me who published it.

A shadow fell on the table, and I turned and saw the dart-thrower.

“I lived in Antarctica,” the dart-thrower said.

Andre turned his chair and screeched the feet on the floor. “You lived in Antarctica?” he said.

“Yes,” the dart-thrower said. “For three years. I worked at the New Zealand station as a mechanic.”

“My name is Neal,” I said. “This here is Andre.”

Andre gave me a look that smoldered. “We’re not friends,” he said. “We just met.”

“John” the dart-thrower said. “I call myself John.”

His name was John? Or was it Juan?

“Your conversation amuses me,” John said.

“This conversation seems to amuse our friend here, too,” Andre said.

“You Americans are all the same,” John said. “Exactly the same.” I waited for Andre to correct John about his non-inclusive use of the word “Americans.”

“I think that’s what’s got Andre here in a huff,” I said. “He and I are exactly the same.”

Andre wadded up his napkin and threw it at me. He pushed himself away from the table, screeching his chair across the floor again. The bartender gave him the eye. He stormed over to the dart board and pulled out the darts, one angry dart at a time.

“What is huff?” John said. “I do not know that word.”

“He means I’m pissed!” Andre said, and threw his first dart. He missed the board completely, and the dart bounced off the wall. Everyone in the bar laughed.

“You’re drunk?” John said.

“It means I’m angry,” Andre said, and glowered at me some more.

“This is what I mean,” John said. “You are loud. And you have no respect for other people’s countries. That is why you want to go where other Americans don’t go. You hate each other. You meet in my town, and you fight.”

Andre looked at John, then at the darts in his hand. He sat back down quietly and laid the darts on the table in front of him.

“I have lived here most of my life,” John said. “But, I have been many other places, and like I said, I lived in Antarctica.”

“I didn’t think anyone lived in Antarctica,” Andre said. It was his humblest statement of the evening.

“I lived there for three years,” John said. “It is my second home.”

I picked up one of the darts and fiddled with it. The end was surprisingly sharp. I imagined stabbing Andre’s hand with it.

“I made a lot of money,” John said. “I used it to see the world. I went all over America. To Santiago, Rio, Caracas, and New York. I visited London for a week, but I did not like London. So I went to Paris. I like Paris. It looks like Buenos Aires.”

“Actually,” Andre said. “Buenos Aires looks like Paris.”

“That’s what I said,” John said.

“No,” Andre said. “You said Paris looks like Buenos Aires.”

“What is the difference?” John said.

“Paris is older,” Andre said. “It was there first.”

I snickered. Andre was predictable already.

“But I saw Buenos Aires first,” John said.

Andre rolled his eyes.

“What was Antarctica like?” I said.

“It is very beautiful,” John said. “Like other world. The viento, the wind, it is angry and always blows. The mountains move.”

“What do you mean, the mountains move?” Andre said. I wanted to smack him.

“The mountains over the horizon sometimes reflect like a mirror off the ice crystals in the sky. One day you see the reflection of a mountain range a thousand kilometers away. The next day the wind blows the frozen air away and the mountains are gone. It was confusing to old mapmakers.”

I had never heard anything like that, and wondered if John was making it up.

“I went to the South Pole,” John said. “Everyone at the research station goes in February when the sun always shines and it is not so cold.”

“Really,” Andre said. “What was that like?” It was the first time Andre showed actual curiosity about anything.

I, too, was curious. I had never met anyone who had been to the South Pole. And though there were many books written about the place by all the great explorers, I never read them.

“It is very high,” John said. “Many kilometers above the level of the sea. It is on a high plain, and when you fly to the pole, the ground rises up to meet you, and the plane does not need to descend in order to land.”

I didn’t know about this either, but I liked it. May the road rise up to meet you, as the Irish like to say. And the pole was high, which made it even farther away from every other place in the world.

“It is colder than the North Pole because it is so high,” John said.

I decided to plan a trip there. I had no idea how I would go, but I liked the idea of the challenge.

“Hey, Andre,” I said. “Wanna go the pole with me?”

He flicked his eyes at me and didn’t say a word. I wondered if he would have been as interested if I had gone instead of John.

“We did not stay long at the pole,” John said. “It was too cold. We were there for maybe one hour. We wore vacuum-sealed boots to keep our feet from freezing.”

“It must have been something,” I said, and felt lame for not thinking of anything better to say.

“The New Zealanders took pictures of themselves in front of the flag as…how do you say…souvenirs,” John said. “I took a piece of ice with me instead.”

“How long did the ice last?” Andre said.

“Oh, I still have the ice,” John said.

“Really!” Andre said, and stood up. I saw what looked like a ketchup stain on his shirt.

“That must have been hard,” I said. “Bringing it back and keeping it from melting.”

“It is in my kitchen, in the ice box,” John said.

“Wow!” Andre said, and started pacing around the table. He walked up behind John. “John, my man,” he said and started rubbing John’s shoulders. “How old is that ice?”

I could see where this was going and I refused to let him beat me.

“Hey, John,” I said. “Any way we could take a look at that ice?” Andre may have beaten me to Esquel, but I wasn’t going to let him beat me to the pole ice.

“No one has seen the ice but me,” John said. “I never told anyone about it before. I brought it back for myself, not to show off.”

“Excellent,” Andre said. “We can be the first to see it. You don’t have to be embarrassed about showing it off in front of us.”

John flinched. “No,” he said. “I’m sorry. I should not have told you about it.”

“John,” I said. “Thank you for telling us. It is a gift to share travel stories.”

“I did not travel there,” John said. “I just went. I worked there and lived there. I was not a tourist.”

Andre read my mind. “We’re not tourists, either,” he said. “We’re travelers.”

“It is the same thing,” John said.

“No, it’s not,” Andre said.

“Don’t go there, Andre,” I said. “You know how stupid people sound when they go on about that. And right now it will sound twice as stupid as it usually does.”

“When Americans travel, they always take pictures,” John said. “The Japanese are even worse.”

“I don’t take pictures,” Andre said.

“You take different kinds of pictures,” John said. “Pictures with words. Those stories you write.”

Great, I thought. John here is a book-hater.

“I’m a writer,” Andre said. “What do you expect?”

“There are Indians in Brazil,” John said, “in the Amazon rainforest. They will not let you take their picture. They believe pictures steal their souls.”

“That’s stupid,” Andre said.

“But, John,” I said. “What about your ice? How is that any different?”

“It is not the same,” John said.

“Why not?” Andre said.

“Look,” John said. “When I went to Antarctica, I brought an Argentine plant with me, a plant from Patagonia. I brought it to remind me of home. And after a while, Antarctica became more familiar to me than Argentina. The ice became the world. Argentina became a strange warm place where things grow. So, when I left for Argentina, I brought the ice to remind me, the same way I brought the plant with me to Antarctica remind me of my home in Esquel. The ice in my freezer is my Antarctic plant.”

“Let me see it,” Andre said. “I’ll pay you. I’ll pay you more if you let me lick it.”

“I am going home,” John said. “I should not have told you about my ice. Please, I am asking you, do not put me in one of your stories.”

He collected his darts, placed them neatly into a black leather case, paid the bartender, and left.

Andre and I were left to ourselves, to each other. Hell, Sartre said, is other people. He looked at me, tapped his fingers on the tabletop, and said nothing. I could hear him breathing. I wanted him to wipe the ketchup stain off his shirt. The evening was impossible now.

He got up, cleared his mug and his plate from the table, and banged them down on the bar. He fished into his pockets and gave the bartender a wad of pesos. He went out and slammed the wooden door behind him. I felt goose bumps on my arms from the whoosh of cold air outside.

I wanted to throw darts, but John had taken his and I didn’t want to ask the bartender for the house darts. The bartender never asked me if I wanted a drink, never acknowledged my existence, and so I figured to hell with it.

I walked outside into the night. The air smelled of snow and juniper berries. Esquel was a small town, and no one lived far from anyone else. I saw John turn into a house two blocks up a side street in front of the bar. I looked up, and above John’s house I saw the Southern Cross in a sky full of unfamiliar stars.


I checked into the hotel next to Henry’s and asked for a room facing the street. When I got to the room, I pulled open the curtains and peered out the window. I could see John’s house. It was right there up the street in front of me. The front door was obscured by two trees in the yard, but I could clearly see the roof and the driveway. He wouldn’t be able to leave without me seeing him as long as I staked out his house in the morning.

I went downstairs and bought cigarettes from the clerk. Back upstairs, I lit one and laid on the bed to stare at the ceiling. The white paint was cracked. Argentine spiders huddled in the corners.

I had never broken into a house before. I wasn’t proud of everything I did in other people’s countries. I paid a panhandler to take off her burka in Pakistan, sneaked into a derelict air force base in Russia, and once begged a woman in Thailand. But this was different. And it had nothing to do with digging around for story material. I could never write about creeping a local’s house.

If I wanted to write about the ice, all I had to do was lie. But I knew if I were to write about the Argentine’s ice box, I would have to hide the truth, not embellish it. I was about to cross a line. A dangerous moral and ethical line. It had something to do with Andre. And it had everything to do with me.

I moved to the window, lit another cigarette, and watched.


I woke with light on my face. I had no idea what time it was, but I was sure I has slept too long. I ran to the sink, splashed cold water on my face, and went to the window.

I would have assaulted a local for French Toast and hash browns. But I had a house to watch, and food was a luxury. So I lit a cigarette to curb my breakfast cravings. The cigarette was awful, but the nicotine rush washed over me and calmed down my stomach.

Then he came out. I saw him between the trees. He climbed in his car, some two-door Euro model, and backed it out of the driveway. He turned the car toward the hotel. I hid my face behind the curtains, though I knew he couldn’t see me. He drove past and headed out of the city. I went out, toward the house, and hoped he lived alone. It was only two blocks away.

The house was simple, but welcoming. It was an ordinary square house, like a plastic Monopoly board piece. The roof was cherry red, the walls blue, the trim bright yellow. It reminded me of Iceland. I liked that the houses at the bottom of the world were much like those at the top. It almost made me feel good. I looked both ways down the street and saw that no one was coming. I went to the door and knocked.

If anyone answered, all I had to do was act surprised. Lo siento, I’d say. I’m sorry. I thought Fulgencio lived here.

There was no answer, and I heard no sound. So I turned the knob and the door opened. There probably wasn’t a locked door in town. What could the crime rate be in a place like this, in a lonely Spanish outpost at the ends of the earth?

The kitchen was at the back of the house, and I could see the sink from the doorway. Dishes were piled up, and the floor glistened with water. John was surely a bachelor. But he had a Victorian couch in the living room, and an old-world coffee table with a swirled marble top. I couldn’t tell which country the table came from, but it was surely from somewhere in Europe. A woman lived there once, if she doesn’t still live there today.

“Hola,” I said to be safe. The house was quiet and still.

I went into the kitchen and looked for a way around the puddle on the floor. I had no choice but to walk through it. The water covered the floor all the way to the icebox.

The ice box was unplugged, and the cord was coiled in water. The door was wide open, and water dripped onto the floor.

Somewhere, I suppose, in the back of my thoughts, I expected this. I knew that Andre and I ruined the ice. And somehow I knew, I just knew, that John was going to do this.

Did I break into his kitchen so that I could see his ice, so I could run my finger along its side, so I could lick it and taste the water from the bottom of the world? Or did I go to ensure that he’d finished it? So I’d know it would always be his. So I could live with myself.

I wasn’t sure at that moment why I was there. But I can honestly say I knew precisely what would happen in the next second.

The front door swung open. Andre’s hunched form filled the doorway. He wasn’t surprised to see me.

“Did you find it?” he said. “How big is it?”

He came forward, not glancing once at the handsome couch or the marble table which I was at that moment quite sure came from France.

I hated Andre and his rude, barging ways. But he was just like me, and I knew that, too. I knew it better than Andre, who hated me, but for all the wrong reasons.

Andre couldn’t stand the competition. He saw in me what he liked about himself. What I saw in Andre I despised.

“Yeah,” I said. “I found it. It’s yours now.”

I walked past him toward the door, which he’d left standing open.

“Well?” he said, surprised to see me leaving so soon.

“Well, what?” I said. “See for yourself. And shut the door on your way out.”

I closed the door gently behind me, and could only imagine the look on his face.

Taking Responsibility

I don’t know if we can reconstruct Iraq. I am optimistic, I am hopeful, but I won’t make a fool of myself and say it’s inevitable.

When the US decided after so many decades of feet-dragging that it was in the same trench as the anti-Saddam resistance, I knew it was the proper side to be on. The Baath Party is on the wrong side of history. Everyone knows it. And I am constitutionally incapable of striking a pose of neutrality between genocidal monsters and their victims, especially when we have the power to do something about it.

But the morally right side of history isn’t always the winning side. The Ayatollah Khomenei was on the wrong side in ’79 in Iran, but he won anyway.

If nation-building fails, most in the world will blame us. They would be partly right to do so. No one forced us to take responsibility for Iraq. The burden is ours if we fail.

But that burden is not ours alone. We are not puppet masters or God. Iraq is not clay in our hands, and there are battles of wills going on in that country. Battles between Baathists and Islamo-fascists and liberal Iraqi democrats. Iraqis are responsible, too. Most of the heavy lifting will really be theirs.

Much of the world doesn’t see it this way, but some in Iraq do. Here is Salam Pax, blogging from Baghdad.

Maybe we Iraqis did expect too much from the American invasion, we did hope there is going to be an easy way. Get rid of Saddam and have the Americans help us rebuild. I don’t think like that anymore. I am starting to believe that the chaos we will go thru the next 5 or 10 years is part of the price we will *have* to pay to have our freedom. This Beirut-ification is the way to learn how we should live as a free country and respect each other; it is just too painful to admit. It is too painful to have to admit that the [burn it down to build it up] process is what we will have to go thru. There is an Arabic poet who wrote a line which my friend Raed had burned into my memory:

This nation needs to learn lessons in destruction.

Salam, remember. And hope. Your nation may have learned that lesson already.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias has a post on the same theme and with the same title.

Greatest Figures in American History

John Hawkins at Right Wing News asked several left-of-center bloggers, including yours truly, to send him a list of who we think are the 20 greatest figures in American history.

Rather than invent objective criteria I decided to just cite my favorites. My list doesn’t include 20. It only includes 16. That’s how many I came up with in one sitting and I didn’t want to force four more.

Here they are in no particular order and for no particular reason. Feel free to use the comments and offer suggestions for those I left out.

1. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

2. Theodore Roosevelt

3. Eleanor Roosevelt

4. Abraham Lincoln

5. George Washington

6. Rosa Parks

7. Thomas Jefferson

8. John Muir

9. Mark Twain

10. Harry S Truman

11. Martin Luther King Jr.

12. Susan B. Anthony

13. John Steinbeck

14. Frederick Douglass

15. Harriet Tubman

16. Carl Sagan

A Fair and Balanced Judge

Al Franken easily beats Fox.

A federal judge on Friday slammed Fox News’ trademark infringement lawsuit against humorist Al Franken and his publisher Penguin Group and refused to stop the sale of the satirist’s new book that pokes fun at Fox and host Bill O’Reilly.

Fox charged that Franken had violated its trademarked phrase “fair and balanced” by including it on the cover of his book entitled “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.” Fox is owned by News Corp and Penguin is a unit of Pearson . The book went on sale on Thursday.

“There are hard cases and there are easy cases. This is an easy case,” said U.S. District Judge Denny Chin, who added that the motion for an injunction was “wholly without merit.”

What Must Be Said

Joe Katzman is one of my favorite conservatives in the blogosphere. No. Wait. I shouldn’t put it that way.

Joe Katzman is one of the best writers in the blogosphere.

How many other Jews after September 11 dedicate every single Sabbath to finding and writing something good about Islam?

How many others are as kind and respectful toward those he does not agree with?

He’s Canadian, so maybe that explains it. Yes, I’m kidding, but I’m only half kidding.

Seriously, though. Because he is conservative he is able to say some things that I am not able to say. Or, perhaps I could say them but I cannot have the same impact.

This is a painful post to write, but it needs to be written. I hate the U.N. too, but some of the posts out there in the wake of the Baghdad bombing crossed a very important line.

This post by Emperor Misha I, and a few of the comments associated with it, are probably the most widely publicized. Regrettably, in the comments section of this Winds of Change.NET post, team member Trent Telenko wrote in one of his comments:

“Too bad the Al-Qaeda didn’t use a bigger bomb (August 20, 2003 02:56 AM).”

What we have here, is a failure to communicate. Not theirs – they communicated all too well. So perhaps it’s mine. Brothers, listen. Carefully.

Please go read the rest.

Blaming America First

Jessica Stern in the New York Times says every problem in Iraq is our fault.

Yesterday’s bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was the latest evidence that America has taken a country that was not a terrorist threat and turned it into one.

Ah, yes. Here we go again. Baathist or Islamist terrorists kill UN humanitarian workers, and it’s America’s fault. We made them do it. Everything is our fault, from hot weather in France to terrorism in the Middle East. Sigh. Big sigh.

Not to mention the fact that Saddam Hussein was the patron and armorer of international terrorists long before we got there. And the fact that he is no longer means Iraq is less of a terrorist threat than it was. At least the threat is different. It certainly isn’t brand new.

Also, for the most part, terrorists in Iraq and those who sneak in from elsewhere now resort to impaling themselves on American soldiers rather than on civilians. That is exactly what we should want.

Of course, we should be glad that the Iraq war was swifter than even its proponents had expected, and that a vicious tyrant was removed from power.

At least she gets that much right.


There is always a “but”

the aftermath has been another story. America has created — not through malevolence but through negligence — precisely the situation the Bush administration has described as a breeding ground for terrorists: a state unable to control its borders or provide for its citizens’ rudimentary needs.

See. Again. We created the miserable state of Iraq. Not Saddam. Not the Baath Party. We did that. Says she.

As the administration made clear in its national security strategy released last September, weak states are as threatening to American security as strong ones.

True enough, again.

Yet its inability to get basic services and legitimate governments up and running in post-war Afghanistan and Iraq — and its pursuant reluctance to see a connection between those failures and escalating anti-American violence — leave one wondering if it read its own report.

Obviously there is a connection between anti-American violence and the failure to get services up and running. The Baathists keep cutting the power lines. And, not coincidentally, they are the same people who kill American soldiers. Anyone who watches the news or reads the paper knows this, but she thinks the Administration doesn’t know it? Please.

For example, the American commander in Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid, has described the almost daily attacks on his troops as guerrilla campaigns carried out by Baathist remnants with little public support. Yet an increasing number of Iraqis disagree: they believe that the attacks are being carried out by organized forces — motivated by nationalism, Islam and revenge — that feed off public unhappiness.

According to a survey this month by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, nearly half of the Iraqis polled attribute the violence to provocation by American forces or resistance to the occupation (even more worrisome, the Arabic word for “resistance” used in the poll implies a certain amount of sympathy for the perpetrators). In the towns of Ramadi and Falluja, where many of the recent attacks have taken place, nearly 90 percent of respondents attributed the attacks to these causes.

A quick Google search reveals that the towns of Ramadi and Falluja are in the small Sunni triangle, the hotbed region of Baath Party support. A poll from these towns does not in any way represent Iraqi opinion. It took me literally fifteen seconds of Internet research to figure this out. Readers of the New York Times deserve better thinking and reporting than this.

It is noteworthy that writers who like to dwell on America’s supposed failures do not mention public opinion in northern Iraqi Kurdistan where the vast majority of the population supports America to the hilt.

Why would ordinary Iraqis not rush to condemn violence against the soldiers who liberated them from Saddam Hussein? Mustapha Alani, an Iraqi scholar with the Royal United Services Institute in London, gave me a possible explanation: even in the darkest days of the Iran-Iraq war, most Iraqis (other than Kurds and Marsh Arabs) did not have to worry about personal security. They could not speak their minds, but they could count on electricity, water and telephone service for at least part of the day. Today they fear being attacked in their bedrooms; power, water and telephones are routinely unavailable. As Mr. Alani put it, Iraqis today could could care less about democracy, they just want assurance that their daughters won’t be raped or their sons kidnapped en route to the grocery store.

The Iraqi regime had an official job description called “Violator of Women’s Honor.” That title no longer exists. And the regime no longer kidnaps anyone on the way to the grocery store. Those who posed the primary threat to the well-being of the Iraqi citizenry have been dramatically weakened by regime-removal. Iraqis may still live in fear, but they live in fear of the very same people who tortured and imprisoned them for decades in the first place. It is not American soldiers who kidnap and rape; it is other Iraqis.

And the reason that ordinary Iraqis do not rush to condemn the terrorist violence is because they fear Saddam will come back, and because “collaborators” have been killed by the Baath Party remnants.

Instead of mentioning any of this, she quotes a person in London who says Iraqis (other than those who were the victims of genocide, as if that’s only a footnote) were previously kept safe and sound by the regime. As if it looked out for their welfare. As if we do not.

Blaming the violence on isolated Baath loyalists was perhaps more plausible when the violence was centered in the Sunni heartland. But the recent riots in the southern Shiite city of Basra, and the sabotage of a major oil pipeline in the Kurdish north, make clear that other regions may not be peaceable indefinitely.

The violence is still centered in the Sunni triangle. Rioting in Basra apparently had little to do with the Baath Party, but it certainly isn’t terrorism. Every country experiences rioting, even the United States.

And so what if a pipeline in the Kurdish north has been sabotoged? If the act was committed by Kurds, it was almost certainly committed by the almost universally loathed Ansar Al Islam, Al Qaeda’s arm in Iraq. It does not mean that we suck. It means there are still enemies, the hated enemies of the people of Iraq, that we need to root out.

Shiites widely supported the operation to remove Saddam Hussein, but they are furious about what they see as American incompetence since the war.

Let them be furious. That does not make them terrorists. They have every right to be furious, and I mean that in both senses of the word “right.” There are problems, and there is cause to be angry. More importantly, they now have a right to be mad. We won’t run steamrollers over them or make them drink gasoline because they’re upset. Nor will we put them in meat grinders or cut out their tongues. Don’t think the Iraqis don’t welcome the right to be angry for once in their lives.

This set the stage for religious extremists.

Come off it. Iraq is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. In the 21st century, that sets the stage for religious extremists. We have plenty of our own religious extremists, and we certainly did not create that impulse from scratch in a Middle Eastern country.

(Skipping ahead, the article is a long one…)

As bad as the situation inside Iraq may be, the effect that the war has had on terrorist recruitment around the globe may be even more worrisome. Even before the coalition troops invaded, a senior [unnamed, -ed.] United States counterterrorism official told reporters that “an American invasion of Iraq is already being used as a recruitment tool by Al Qaeda and other groups.”

Of course this is true, but so what? A primary feature of Al Qaeda’s propaganda before September 11 was that the United States was a paper tiger, that we were weak and would not fight back as the Soviets did in Afghanistan, that defeating us would be easy. You won’t hear that in the recruitment tapes anymore. I’ll gladly make that trade.

Her conclusion is more reasonable.

The goal of creating a better Iraq is a noble one, but a first step will be making sure that ordinary Iraqis find America’s ideals and assistance more appealing than Al Qaeda’s.

But the shoddy thinking throughout is unfortunate. Terrorism is blamed on America. Religious extremism is blamed on America. Sabotage is blamed on America. Every problem is blamed on America.

The same sort of thinking during World War II would have blamed Nazism and Japanese Imperialism on America, and probably on Winston Churchill to boot. Nazi atrocities would have been blamed on America because taking them on made them mad.

Her resume is impressive. She has studied this subject much more than I have.

Therefore she has no excuse.

Right-Wing Terror Apologism

Via Andrew Northrup I find this nasty little screed about yesterday’s terror attack in Baghdad from Emperor Misha (in his own comments section), who likes to think of himself as an “anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler.”

I am not “condoning” the attack, I’m merely stating what should be obvious to most people, in my ever so arrogant opinion:

When you play with hyenas (and the UN has being doing nothing BUT that ever since it hobbled out of the swamps), don’t come fucking whining to me when the mangy, rabid beast turns around and bites you.

Excuse me, Mr. Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler. But you did just make excuses for terrorism.

Let’s rerun this and replace just a single small letter.

I am not “condoning” the attack, I’m merely stating what should be obvious to most people, in my ever so arrogant opinion:

When you play with hyenas (and the US has being doing nothing BUT that ever since it hobbled out of the swamps), don’t come fucking whining to me when the mangy, rabid beast turns around and bites you.

Worse than Noam Chomsky. At least Chomsky’s language is clinical.

Most of Emperor Misha’s audience seems to agree with him, judging by the comments thread. How charming.

Unhinged in Paris

Europeans used to blame Jews when people got sick. That same impulse still thrives on the continent.

Howard Fineman in Newsweek:

The blame-America attitude gets silly at times. For example, you might have wondered what caused the suffocating heat wave that has blanketed Europe recently. I found out the moment we arrived in Rouen. There, on the front page of the newspaper Le Monde, was a cartoon: an oppressive sun, with eyes made of dollar signs, smoking a cigar/factory with dollar signs, sending out thunderbolts of heat that pierced a prostrate Europe. In Paris, I asked a young businessman about the cartoon. “Well, of course,” he said as if I were an idiot. “Your President Bush did not sign the Kyoto Accord.” In other words, America was at fault because it had not signed a treaty that will not go into effect for years.

This is beyond silly. It is contemptible. And it is retarded.

It is not contemptible because Le Monde is wrong about the facts. It is contemptible because Le Monde and the young businessman in Paris even think such nonsense is plausible. What, too hot for ya? Well, it must be because of those filthy greedy Americans. That’s the first thing that pops into their heads when something annoys them.

We’re a cross between Klingons and the Ferringhi to them, apparently.

They really will find a way to blame us for everything. What’s next? Really. What’s next? Because you know as well as I do that something will be next.

As the French blog Merde in France reported recently:

Remember Americans, you are hated here. Hated more than the worst terrorists and murderers.

It’s one thing to have crypto-racist fantasies about Americans. And it’s another thing altogether to ratchet it up at a time when genocidal fanatics promise to turn America into a sea of deadly radiation because they think we’re a bunch of Satanic infidels. It’s even worse to behave this way and then pretend to be our friend and ally who deserves respect and consultation.

Shelly and I visited France a year and a half ago and we had a great time. Everyone was nice to us, despite their reputation for rudeness with tourists. The French as individuals are fine people, honest to gosh they really are. Politically, as a collective, they’re becoming unhinged. Maybe they think the same about us. I’m sure, in fact, that they do. But I have yet to see anti-French American sentiment come even close to the craziness exhibited by our counterparts over in Paris.

It’s been hot as hell here in Portland this summer. And not a single person thinks the cause is anything other than weather. If anyone thought to blame the French or the Jews or the Arabs or anyone else they would be regarded like a deranged person yelling at cars in the streets.

Target: UN

The Baathist “resistance” hit the UN headquarters in Baghdad with a truck bomb.

The top UN envoy to Iraq was killed.

These attacks are not a cry for help. They are committed by Saddam’s goons determined to kill their way back into power. Camouflage helmet, blue helmet, it doesn’t matter. If you get in their way, you’re dead.

Now that the UN has been hit, the fact-resistant might finally understand that these are the bad guys.

UPDATE: Kimmitt in the comments says I am intellectually bankrupt. That’s fine, he’s entitled to his opinion. But I would like to make something clear.

“The resistance” is a loaded term, and I know very well what it means to people in left-wing circles. It implies justice and right, especially when juxtaposed with “the occupation.” And most in the media use this term to describe Baathist and terrorist hit squads.

It will be interesting to see if thugs who kill UN envoys will be called “the resistance” or if they will get a new name.

The State of Serial Killers

In David Fincher’s nightmarish film Seven, Kevin Spacey plays John Doe, mad Bible man and the creepiest on-screen killer since Hannibal Lector. John hated sinners and he set out to kill seven, one victim for each of the Deadly Sins; Gluttony, Pride, Envy, Lust, Anger, Greed, and Sloth.


Now Iran has its own flesh-and-blood version.

When the drought ended and the rains came, Saeed Hanaei believed that it was a sign from God that his killing spree had divine approval. “I realised God looked favourably on me. That he had taken notice of my work,” Hanaei said. With 12 prostitutes already dead by his hands, Hanaei carried on his “work” and strangled at least four more women after luring them to his house in the Iranian city of Mashhad.

You can imagine if this guy were American what the media would say about him.

But he isn’t American. He is Iranian. And the Iranian media, controlled by the state, aren’t so sure he’s even a bad guy.

The case provoked a debate between reformers who condemned the authorities for failing to catch him earlier and some conservatives who shared the killer’s disgust with a rise in prostitution.

“Who is to be judged?” wrote the conservative newspaper Jomhuri Islami. “Those who look to eradicate the sickness or those who stand at the root of the corruption?”

It’s not surprising that the mullahs can’t quite come out against him. He is not so different from them; self-righteous, psychotic, intolerant, fundamentalist, and murderous. The only difference between him and the state is his freelancing.

One is Enough

Andrew Northrup (aka The Poor Man) has a short succinct post explaining why the US doesn’t need an American Guardian.

There are a lot of complaints one might make about the American media – there are a lot of complaints one might make – but I don’t think you could count “being insufficiently obsessed with Israel” as one of them.

Read it all. The whole thing is good.

What I Did During the Blackout

We didn’t get a blackout here in the Pacific Northwest, but Shelly and I wanted one. So we went “camping” this weekend at a long narrow lake in a canyon in the central Oregon desert.

Proper camping is when you hike at least an hour to a remote place in the sticks, preferably near a lake at the foot of a volcano, humping a pack stuffed with fifty pounds of provisions; camp stove, dehydrated chicken and rice, water filter, MacGyver knife, sleeping bag (no pillow), tent (no frills), waterproof matches, and beef jerky.

“Camping” is when you pitch your tent next to the car in a “campground” where you can listen to the ballgame on the radio of the guy in the parking space next to you.

We pulled into the so-called campground just after dark and took the last tent space. We hardly needed a flashlight to pitch the tent. The place was lit up like a parking lot at a sports stadium. Every campsite had at least one lantern on the picnic table. The people across from us had five.

So the tent thing was easy. Then I lay back to look at the moonless night sky and listen to the crickets. I needed those crickets. Only they could unwind the coil of urban stress in my back. Then I could melt into the shimmering sky and rest.

But it was not to be.

The family to our left had five kids, all of ‘em fighting over who got to play with the dump truck.

Near as I could tell, the oldest person in the five-lantern family across from us was fifteen years old. There were at least eight of them, and every one had a case of the giggles. The girls in the tent swatted each other with pillows, and the boys outside played cards and slapped their hands on the table.

The family to our right had two and a half kids, all of them boys. “Get up and help your mother with the pots and pans.” “But, Dad, I don’t want to do anything right now.” (I could relate.) “You’ve spent all of fourteen years not doing anything. Now move.”

People are not supposed to behave this way in the woods after dark. Especially not in a canyon that amplifies sound.

Our “campsite” was on the path to the bathrooms. The path is a street, mind you, paved with asphalt and slathered with gravel. Every kid under twelve who walked by insisted on scraping his feet. Shloomp shloomp shloomp. Their mothers always seemed to be yelling.

It was just like the city without any walls. It wasn’t nature. It was a tailgate party minus the beer.

I couldn’t enjoy the crickets, so I figured I’d just go to sleep. It was all I could do to shut off the racket.

In the middle of the night I woke to Shelly squeezing my hand. She sat bolt upright in her sleeping bag and cocked her head sideways.

Something’s happening. Something’s out there.

We heard munching sounds. An animal was eating our food. And it wasn’t a raccoon or a chipmunk. It was too loud, surely a large mammal. A deer? A bear? Then I heard feet scrape past our tent. Shloomp shloomp shloomp. Human. Some dipshit eating our Cheeze-Its in our camp at 2:00 in the morning.

Shelly unzipped the tent. Heavy feet clomped away in the darkness.

She wanted to walk to the bathroom but didn’t want to wander around alone, not with the Cheeze-It Killer on the loose. So we both went. The canyon walls were awash with a spooky gray moonlight. The band of the Milky Way was bright as a celestial grow lamp. Mars shimmered above us, as close to Earth as the planet has ever been. It was quiet for once, and it was finally dark. The lanterns were out, the yammering silenced. Every third tent we passed vibrated with snoring, but at last I could listen to the crickets.

Then the horror show started. First one then at least a dozen coyotes howled at the moon, then at each other.

If you’ve never heard coyotes you have no idea what I’m talking about. It is the sound of a hundred madmen stabbing babies with scissors. High-pitched, piercing, feral, bloodthirsty, and mad.

They are harmless animals, but not everyone knows it. Most people don’t get the chance to hear them, especially not those who treat the great outdoors like a suburban block party on the Fourth of July.

The hysterical shrieking ricocheted off the canyon walls. We were surrounded. The tent-snoring stopped. A hundred pairs of eyelids snapped to attention, and no one dared giggle or make a ruckus.

For the first time that night, everyone understood where they were and what was expected of them.

We’re not in Portland anymore. We’re in the hinterland, in the desert. There are things out there and they don’t like the blazing light and the racket.

I climbed into bed and was lulled back to sleep by the chirping of crickets.

The Lure of Destruction

The Washington Post says Mt. Rainier is far more dangerous than we knew. My first reaction: excellent. Only later did I think yikes.

I can see the mountain from my office in Portland. It’s bigger than you think.


Shelly and I drove 1,000 miles along the Andes range in Chile last December. And we didn’t see a single mountain as massive. Nor did we see a place so wracked with violence as the ground around Rainier.

The drive to the mountain is spooky. The land is shot through with gouges cut by eruption flows. Snow-covered ridges, themselves as tall as mountains, thrust straight up from the ravines. Rainier itself is incomprehensibly huge. Three miles tall and many miles wider, it looks to the eye the size of a planet. Red and yellow pools burble along the trails around the lakes. At the foot of the mountain I saw a grove of evergreens sprayed with rust-colored minerals that had exploded out of the ground. The mountain is rotting from within. Unfelt earthquakes roll beneath the ground on a regular basis.

It grumbles. It stirs. And it moves.

I was nine years old on May 18, 1980 when I sat on the roof of my house and watched Mt. St. Helens go mad. The apocalyptic explosion packed thousands of times the force of the Hiroshima bomb. I was 100 miles away in Salem, and the eruption was a gray silhouette painted in ash on the horizon. The sound wave thundered into downtown Portland, arced over my sleepy town, and hit the ground an hour south in Eugene. I heard the cries of birds and the soft roar of traffic, but people in Eugene said it sounded like war.


I was lucky I was a child. If it happened ten years later I would have driven straight toward ground zero. Only the police or the army could have kept me away. I needed to see the mayhem up close; the mudslides, the ash cloud, the terrible black sky that one survivor said looked like Hell.

A few years later my dad put me and my brother in the car and we drove toward the mountain to the end of the road. Halfway between I-5 and the crater the highway was blockaded by a chain-link fence with a stern government warning to stay the hell out. Danger lie ahead. The air was hot and sticky and close. I felt an electrical charge. I imagined myself scaling the fence so I could walk the rest of the way, ducking from government helicopters that surely (or so I imagined) kept a watchful eye on the criminally adventurous and the stupid.

Later they opened it up. The mountain was supposed to be safe, which also meant it was boring. But at least we could see what had happened.

We drove through a vast dead fireplace. The flame was out, the ashes cold. The ancient forest was blown down. Hundreds of thousands of stately firs were reduced to entombed gray logs. The earth was a moonscape of ash. And we were still far from the mountain.

I would have driven this far, I thought, if I were old enough to drive on the day that it happened.

I’m glad to be alive, of course, but part of me feels cheated as though I had slept through it.

Our horizon is a skyline of mountains. Mt. Hood watches over Portland like a sentinel. It looks grumpy and tired in summer, and is a shimmering white jewel in the winter. Every couple of years it throws tantrums and fits. The geologists say to watch out, and the local papers blow it all out of proportion. I think the journalists want the mountain to blow.


I don’t want it to blow. Towns would be annihilated. Portland’s easternmost suburbs are in danger. I can’t wish death and destruction on my community. But it sure would be interesting, at least in the sense of the Chinese curse. Payback time for my nose-bleeder seats back in ‘80. Mt. Hood is right at my door. I could watch the pyroclastic flow down the side of the mountain. I could hear the primordial roar and feel the blast in my bones.

My wife and I will visit Guatemala this winter. The old colonial capital of Antigua nests in a valley between three volcanoes. One of them, Volcan Pacaya, is constantly active. A wisp of smoke is a nearly permanent feature, and lava sometimes streams down the sides. From the city at night you can see it glow red from the fire. I’ll rent a car, or I’ll take the chicken bus, and I will get as close to that mountain as the roads will allow. Brave tourists can pay a guide to take them up top. Sometimes they flee in terror, and sometimes they die. I’ll need my wife to keep me from scaling its walls.


(Photo copyright Quetzal Adventures.)


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