Friday, October 28, 2005

The Unbearable Heaviness of the Left-Wing Blogger 

Welcome to any and all readers or passers-by. In the absence of posts on a more diverse range of issues, I have reproduced here some recent pieces of mine - hardly keeping up to date with news around the world, but covering some topics that are hopefully of some interest:

Whatever happened to the heroes? - The US army killed their own poster boy last year in Afghanistan then lied about it, as the parents of Pat Tillman have angrily told the press. This is a story about the many revelations that have emerged from the death of Pat Tillman, the NFL player who joined the US Army Rangers in 2002
Teaching to the Test - the current enthusiasm for national standardised tests in schools is bad for children
Southern Discomfort - Decaying infrastructure, high levels of unemployment, poverty and corruption, a glimpse into the state of the south of Italy
Mission from God - George Bush has often made the immodest claim that his policies and political career are a reflection of the will of God, no less, sometimes quite belligerently. So why did the White House try to deny it?
The Fight Against Al-Jazeera - how supporters of the Iraq War misunderstand and misrepresent the Arab televsion network, siding with the network's multiple enemies in the Gulf
Guns Don't Kill People, Newsweek Does - old news, looking back at the Newsweek/Qu'ran abuse/White House debacle
Inner City on Fire - the politics of fire safety, from a New York sweatshop in the early 20th century to the fires in Paris that consumed the lives of African children three times this year

Perhaps more soon, and more up-to-date soon...

Alex Higgins, writing from Tottenham, London, England

Should you wish, e-mail me at Respond_Alexblog at Yahoo dot co dot uk

Link to the official Dilbert website here


Whatever happened to the heroes?

"If this is what happens when someone high profile dies, I can only imagine what happens with everyone else." Mary Tillman, mother of Corporal Pat Tillman, killed April 22nd, 2004 in Afghanistan.

As a hero of George W. Bush's wars, Pat Tillman was perfect. A square-jawed Californian football star, voted Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year at Arizona State University in 1997 (where he also scored a 3.84 grade average out of a possible 4 and went on to do an MA in history), he broke records for the Arizona Cardinals with 224 tackles in one season. (I know almost nothing about American football, so I can't honestly tell you how good that is...)

Emotionally affected by the September 11th massacres, he turned down a $3.6 million contract for the Cardinals, decided to enlist and joined the Army Rangers (salary $18,000 a year) in June 2002 alongside his brother Kevin in the hope of pursuing Osama Bin Laden in the mountains of south-east Afghanistan. The Bush administration was delighted, and Donald Rumsfeld wrote him a personal letter of gratitude. Tillman made only one public statement about his reasons for joining up, saying among other things:

"I play football, and it just seems so goddamn--it is--unimportant compared to everything that's taken place... My great grandfather was at Pearl Harbour and a lot of my family has... gone and fought in wars. And I really haven't done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that goes."

Tillman, as a member of A Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, participated first in the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003 and after that was deployed in Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan, where on April 22nd, 2004, he was killed. The Pentagon issued an edifying account of his final heroism as he and his men fought al-Qa'ida: "Through the firing, Tillman's voice was heard issuing commands to take the fight to the enemy on the dominating high ground."

The White House issued a statement to say that the President's thoughts and prayers were with the Tillman family. Pat was awarded the Purple Heart and the Silver Star posthumously. His memorial service in San Jose was attended by 3,500 people and broadcast nationwide, with eulogies from the likes of Arizona Senator John McCain.

His example has been held up by numerous right-wing commentators as a paragon of noble sacrifice, a challenge to today's youth - "an inspiration on and off the football field, as with all who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror” in Bush's words. The ultra-right-wing hack Ann Coulter, in a book on why you should never talk graciously to liberals (a category she defines very broadly), hailed Pat as “an American original — virtuous, pure and masculine like only an American male can be” sounding like a 1930s Aryan racial theorist. Pat Tillman was perfect.

Too perfect. Shortly after the memorial service and ever since, facts have emerged that have shown that this view of the life and death of Pat Tillman is substantially fictional. Among them:

* Pat was not killed by Afghan rebels or Islamists but by his fellow troops - in fact, it seems unlikely that there were any hostile fighters in the area when he was shot;

* Pentagon officials lied directly and repeatedly to Pat's mother and father about his death, while issuing statements they knew to be false to the public.

More recently it has emerged that:

* Senior officers in command of Pat's platoon have engaged in an extensive cover-up of the circumstances of his death, including deceiving investigators, rewriting internal reports, and destroying physical evidence;

* Pat Tillman's politics were very different to what his right-wing admirers have imagined - he was an opponent of Bush and planned to vote for Senator John Kerry in the November 2004 elections and urged other soldiers to do so too;

* Pat was an opponent of the Iraq War and criticised it strong terms among his fellow soldiers;

* Pat was an "avid reader" of America's fiercest foreign policy critic, MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, and a meeting was arranged between him and Chomsky for after he returned from Afghanistan.

The army's initial statement that Pat Tillman was last "heard issuing commands to take the fight to the enemy" was a cruel parody of what they knew to be the truth. Pat had indeed used his last words urging his fellow soldiers to "take the fight to the enemy" in the sense that he had pleaded unsuccessfully for them to stop shooting him - "Cease fire, friendlies, I am Pat fucking Tillman, dammit".

Robert Collier, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle reviewed along with Pat's parents thousands of pages of documents, trying to piece together Pat's last day, from which much of the following information is drawn, along with Andrew Buncombe's feature for the Independent, 'The life and death of American icon'.

On April 22nd last year, Tillman's company were travelling in Humvee towards the village of Manah, but stopped outside Sperah, 25 miles south-west of the city of Khost when one of the Humvees broke down. The commanding officers decided to split the platoon over the objections of its leader, Lieutenant David Uthlaut, so that one half stayed with broken vehicle and the other half pressed ahead. This meant that half a unit was being sent into hostile territory in broad daylight, which is, to the say the least, a break from conventional military strategy which advises always using the cover of night in such circumstances. Still, that's the 'can-do' spirit. It is not known who made this decision - possibly Captain William Saunders or Lieutenant-Colonel Jeffrey Bailey. “It was dumb to send us out during daylight,” said platoon member Russel Baer to the Chronicle.

Pat's unit drove ahead, while his brother Kevin waited with the second for an Afghan truck to carry the broken Humvee, which arrived about a quarter of an hour later. The two groups were unable to see each other and lost radio contact. The delayed second group came under fire and the platoon made the probably incorrect assumption that they were being ambushed by Taliban guerrillas.

Pat, accompanied by a soldier of an allied Afghan militia (who is not named in the press reports and whose fate is one of the most neglected parts of this story), climbed up a nearby hill in an attempt to get a view of who was firing on the other half of the platoon and shoot back. But a vehicle from the other unit that had sped ahead caught up with Pat's unit and mistook Pat and his Afghan companion for the enemy. The Afghan soldier started shooting across the ridge over them at what he presumably then thought to be hostile fighters. While he was recognised by the driver of the vehicle from the second unit as an ally (they were about 65 metres away - though the range is a disputed detail), the driver failed to halt the fire of his companions in time.

The soldiers from the second unit started "shooting wildly, without first identifying their target, and also shot at a village on the ridgeline." Pat waved his arms, yelled and set off a smoke grenade in an effort to identify himself and the firing came to a halt - but not before the Afghan militia fighter beside him was killed. Tillman stood up and began talking to his surviving companion.

Then the firing resumed and he was "hit in the wrist with shrapnel and in his body armor with numerous bullets" His companion later testified:

"I could hear the pain in his voice as he called out, ‘Cease fire, friendlies, I am Pat f—ing Tillman, dammit.' He said this over and over until he stopped... I then looked over at my side to see a river of blood coming down from where he was … I saw his head was gone.”

Pat Tillman was killed by three bullets that went into his forehead. If this account of events is accurate, it clearly goes beyond a tragic friendly fire mishap to culpable negligence bordering on second degree homicide.

Testifying to official investigators, local Afghan militia leaders denied that there had been any hostile fire. "It was just the Americans and the [allied] militiamen shooting at each other - just a terrible mistake", said Karim Khan, the Sperah area security chief, to which his deputy, Yusef Din, concurred: "There was an explosion and the two sides thought it was a Taliban attack. It wasn't - it was just the two sides attacking each other."

Back in Washington, faced with a massive escalation of the Iraq War that month, which raised the serious prospect of US military defeat for the first time, the Pentagon learned almost immediately that the US army had just killed its most famous and popular recruit. But a public relations disaster was instead turned into a triumph, if only temporarily - simply by fabricating an alternative account of Pat Tillman's death with a more uplifting ending. In this version, Pat was cut down by Taliban fighters in the heat of battle, while urging his men onwards.

CNN reported the inspiring tale:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former NFL player Pat Tillman was killed Thursday while serving as an Army Rangers soldier on a mission in southeastern Afghanistan, Pentagon officials have told CNN. He was 27.

Pentagon sources confirmed that a soldier killed during an ambush on a coalition combat patrol, reported in a U.S. Central Command release, was Tillman.The incident took place at 7:30 p.m. local time Thursday near the village of Sperah, 40 kilometers southwest of Khowst.

"The enemy action was immediately responded to by the coalition patrol with direct fire and a firefight ensued," the release said. "During the engagement, one coalition soldier was killed and two wounded." It also said an Afghan Militia Force soldier was killed and that "the enemy broke contact during the engagement."

Many press reports gave a similar story. Politicians stepped in to deliver the wholesome lessons of a life well lived, and not lost in vain:

Sen. John Kyl released a statement calling Tillman "a great American hero in the truest sense. He had already given up so much, including an incredible football career and loving family, to fight for his country in the war on terrorism. His patriotism and courage are an inspiration and we are grateful for his ultimate sacrifice."

Rep. Jeff Flake said, "Pat Tillman exemplified the sacrifice, selflessness, and service of the U.S. military. Nowadays, genuine role models in professional sports are few and far between, but Tillman proved that there are still heroes in sports."

Pat, assumed to be a conventional stalwart of American nationalism, was portrayed across the conservative blogosphere as a reason for other young people to make themselves into sacrifices, often with the unsubtle implication that what is wrong with America's youth today is a selfish unwillingness to get inside a body-bag. One commentator on one of these sites informs us that Pat "reminds us that our cause is even nobler than we believe". Another that:

"My daughter, a tall blond, blue eyed, all american high school sports star, decided to join the Marines instead of modeling. She was inspired by Pat Tillman's sacrifice and his love of country. She is in basic right now. I've never been so scared, and yet so proud."

Another actually felt the need to remind readers that Pat's death was not an entirely good thing, even though it offers such a great opportunity to persuade people to go and get killed in Iraq - "On one level, this is not good news..." On one level! That would be the level where he died, presumably.

And so on and so forth.

Tom Danziger - see Daryl Cagle's Political Cartoons

Then, five weeks later, with the memorial service over and the 75th Ranger Regiment about to return from Afghanistan, the Pentagon announced that another investigation had found that it was "probable" that Pat had been killed in a friendly fire incident (they knew full well that it was a good deal more than probable - it was a fact). This news hit Pat's parents hard, but as more details emerged, they became outspoken in their anger, fully aware of what the Department of Defense had done and why. Patrick Tillman Senior, Pat's father, told the Washington Post:

"After it happened, all the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this. They purposely interfered with the investigation, they covered it up. I think they thought they could control it, and they realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out. They blew up their poster boy."

His mother, Mary agrees (Patrick and Mary are divorced but have pursued their son's case together):

"We should not have been subjected to all of this. This lie was to cover their image. I think there's a lot more yet that we don't even know, or they wouldn't still be covering their tails."

The Washington Post's investigation in May this year, entitled, "Tillman's Parents Are Critical of Army; Family Questions Reversal on Cause of Ranger's Death" also prompted a letter from Pat Tillman Sr. in which he stated that the word 'critical' was an "understatement" of how they felt.

The first investigation into Pat's death began within 24 hours of it happening and appears to have been an actual homicide inquiry carried out by an officer in his battalion. This report was completed in a couple of weeks, on May 4th, concluding that the soldiers responsible had shown "criminal intent", committed acts of "gross negligence" and should receive disciplinary measures. This investigation has never been made fully available to the public and, as the San Francisco Chronicle reports:

"For reasons that are not clear, the officer’s investigation was taken over by a higher ranking commander. That officer’s findings, delivered the next month, called for less severe discipline."

Patrick Tillman Sr. said of the Pentagon's non-investigations in his letter to the Washington Post, again insisting that the Post had not fully reported his point of view:

"I characterized the second and third investigations as "shams." The first one -- a homicide investigation -- may have been accurate, but the results were changed by superiors after the investigating officer refused to alter them. I did not say the Army "botched" the investigation. I said it deliberately falsified baseline facts, -- e.g., distance, light conditions, details perceived before and while firing, and the identification of 'friendlies'."

The anonymous officer who carried out the first investigation expressed his anger at the decision by his superiors to ignore his conclusions in testimony given in November 2004:

“...watching some of these guys getting off, what I thought … was a lesser of a punishment than what they should’ve received. And I will tell you, over a period of time … the stories have changed. They have changed to, I think, help some individuals.”

He further testified that soldiers were permitted to alter crucial details in the report in order to avoid the implication of culpability. The decision concerning the punishment of those responsible was delegated to Captain William Saunders - even though Saunders had himself received a reprimand over the incident and was initially threatened with perjury charges when falsehoods in his initial testimony to the investigation were exposed. Saunders was granted immunity from perjury charges and given permission to change his initial testimony. As Mary Tillman told the San Francisco Chronicle, “It seems grossly inappropriate that Saunders would determine punishment for the others when he shares responsibility for the debacle.”

Two days after Pat's death, soldiers in his platoon destroyed all the physical evidence, including removing Pat's bullet-ridden body armour and uniform and burning them, a fact confirmed by Brigadier General Gary Jones, an Army investigator. Such conduct in general is not uncommon, incidentally - particularly in cases where US soldiers kill civilians, physical evidence is manipulated - weapons placed in the hands of civilian corpses, for instance. As Mary Tillman says, insightfully: "If this is what happens when someone high profile dies, I can only imagine what happens with everyone else."

One unanswered question is how high the decision to suppress the facts about Pat Tillman's death went. Army Ranger commanders were all informed that Pat had been killed by his own soldiers within 24 hours. General John Abiziad, commander of US forces in Afghanistan was informed on April 29th. The following day Abizaid gave this statement in a press briefing:

''While I was in Afghanistan yesterday I had the opportunity to talk to First Lieutenant Dave Hutman [sic] . . . He was the platoon leader of Pat Tillman. I asked him yesterday how operations were going. I asked him about Pat Tillman. He said, 'Pat Tillman was a great Ranger and a great soldier, and what more can I say about him?' . . . I also probably bear some understanding that (the) lieutenant I was talking to . . . was still nursing a large number of wounds that he sustained in that firefight where Pat Tillman lost his life."

"What more can I say...?" Any suggestions?

Mary and Patrick Tillman and the general public were first given an inkling of the truth on May 29th, a full month later. When was Donald Rumsfeld informed? When did the White House find out? Could it really be that Rumsfeld and/or Bush, who had made personal statements on Pat's decision to enlist and the significance of his death, were not informed of what the US army command in Afghanistan knew? Particularly in Rumsfeld's case, it seems unlikely.

Max Blumenthal writes for Yahoo News:

"The fact that when Tillman first joined the Army, Rumsfeld personally commended him with a signed letter seems especially relevant now. If Rumsfeld knew the nature of Tillman's killing in April, 2004, he undoubtedly directed the cover-up. And if Rumsfeld directed the cover-up, Karl Rove was aware of it, if not actively involved in exploiting it."

Mary Tillman agrees: “If Pat was on Rumsfeld’s radar, it’s pretty likely that he would have been informed right away after he was killed.”

Mary and Patrick Tillman have to date chosen not to associate their case with the anti-war movement and have instead asked Senator John McCain, a rival of Bush's within the Republican Party and prominent supporter of various military causes, to press for further investigation. Whether McCain is prepared to hold Senate hearings in which Donald Rumsfeld is compelled to testify remains to be seen.

The San Francisco Chronicle investigation sifted through thousands of pages of documents in the possession of the Tillman family relating to the case, and it was here that a more interesting picture of Pat Tillman's political outlook has emerged.

Pat was an independent thinker, not easily put into any category, and as with many people, his politics were likely in a fluid state - able to change one way or another. He read widely and his reading included a lot of Winston Churchill, while his political heroes included John McCain, which in part prompted his parents to turn to McCain for help.

Shortly after the news of Pat's death was reported in the US, some anti-war voices responded to the eulogies with unwise disparagements of Pat's character, which were, as ever, widely circulated by conservatives as evidence of the left's heartlessness and general moral depravity. They included an article in a student newspaper in which Pat was described as an idiot "acting out his nationalist-patriotic fantasies" who received his due, various comments posted at US Indymedia and a cartoon by Ted Rall in which Tillman requests that he be allowed to kill Arabs as quickly as possible. Certainly, judgements to the effect that Pat was a stupid racist have turned out to be wide of the mark, and in rushing to condemnation his critics missed the big story and handed a gift to the right, already buoyed by fantasies of glory in combat.

Pat is now known to have adamantly opposed the Bush administration, intending to vote for Senator John Kerry in November 2004. He also urged other soldiers to do the same. On Iraq, he is known to have strongly disparaged the US invasion in which he was compelled to actively participate against his wishes. Fellow soldier Russell Baer has said:

“We were outside of (a city in southern Iraq) watching as bombs were dropping on the town. We were at an old air base, me, Kevin and Pat, we weren’t in the fight right then. We were talking. And Pat said, ‘You know, this war is so f— illegal.’ And we all said, ‘Yeah.’ That’s who he was. He totally was against Bush.”

(Baer has since been honourably discharged from the US Army Rangers)

When Pat joined the US army he gave a broadly apolitical speech with some patriotic themes citing personal and emotional reasons for wishing to enlist, but he never made any other public statement. The Pentagon, eager to use Pat as a recruiter and advert, made many offers to him, urging him to engage in extensive public relations for them - possibly hundreds of times - but he declined on each occasion. He certainly shunned any special attention and would not have appreciated some of the subsequent attempts to turn him into Captain America.

Most surprisingly, Pat was an "avid reader" of Professor Noam Chomsky, one of the most prominent, radical left critics of the US political system, regarding him as "a favourite author". The Chronicle reported, citing Mary Tillman, that a friend of Pat's contacted Chomsky in order to arrange a meeting between the two of them. The meeting was prevented only by Tillman's death.

Ann Coulter was challenged by Alan Coombes, one of the Fox Channel's very, very few in-house liberals, on whether she would withdraw her praise of Pat now that his anti-war and left-wing sentiments had been revealed, and given that she had written an entire book explaining that such people should be treated with total contempt? Along with Republican hack Sean Hannity, she simply refused to believe that Pat Tillman was anything other than the icon of right-wing America's imagination. ("Why does Ann hate America?" responded one blog commentator).

It is tempting to wonder what would have happened if Pat hadn't been killed in Afghanistan. Would he have become more radical? Would he have made public his criticisms of George W. Bush and the Iraq War? Would he have become a kind of Mohammad Ali for the 21st century - a sporting icon who challenged authority and radicalised his fans? Sadly, these questions cannot be answered and the opportunity is forever lost. As Chomsky wrote in an e-mail to me: "His death was tragic. I am also very sorry not to have had the chance to meet him."

Patrick Tillman Sr. is still demanding answers but has despaired of getting much honesty from the Department of Defense:

"Maybe lying's not a big deal anymore. Pat's dead, and this isn't going to bring him back. But these guys should have been held up to scrutiny, right up the chain of command, and no one has."

Ending with Mary's words, ''Pat had high ideals about the country. That's why he did what he did. The military let him down. The administration let him down. It was a sign of disrespect. The fact that he was the ultimate team player and he watched his own men kill him is absolutely heartbreaking and tragic. The fact that they lied about it afterward is disgusting."


"FAMILY DEMANDS THE TRUTH: New inquiry may expose events that led to Pat Tillman’s death", Robert Collier, San Francisco Chronicle, September 25, 2005

'A Cover-Up At The Highest Levels', Max Blumenthal, Huffington Post, Sep 26, 2005

Hannity, Coulter "don't believe" that Tillman liked Noam Chomsky, opposed Iraq war; Tillman's mother disagrees, Media Matters.org, September 29, 2005

'Shame on the Army', Derrick Z. Jackson, Boston Globe, May 25th, 2005

'Tillman's Parents are Critical of Army - Family Questions Reversal on Cause of Ranger's Death', Josh White, Washington Post, May 23rd, 2005

'The life and death of an American icon', Andrew Buncombe, Independent, December 11th, 2004, pp40-1

'Tillman killed in Afghanistan', CNN, April 23rd, 2004

'Tillman's Tower', Norman J. Fulkerson (jingoist propaganda piece)

Pat Tillman's Wikipedia entry

Teaching to the Test

"Critics of testing contend it distracts from learning. They talk about 'teaching to the test'. But let's put that logic to the test. If you test a child on basic math and reading skills and you're 'teaching to the test,' you're teaching math and reading." (George W. Bush)

Here's some recent experience of mine. I'm not writing this to criticise a school or its staff, who have very little option but to do as we are required by law, but to criticise the current trend favouring constantly putting children to the test, including a routine of public examinations, among politicians and the public.

Like many children, Ania (name changed, as with all others) fears school. She is 5 years old. Her Mum told me that every day she tells her that she doesn't like school, pleads with her not to send her. Every day for weeks, she would start sobbing in class, asking for her Mum, and her teacher or teacher assistants tried to think of ways of calming her down.

Many children who are new to school, or new to a particular school behave like this. In the worst cases, it goes on for weeks before the children stop crying and start to settle into the class. This is rarely, I suspect, because they have come to like school, more that they have got used to the idea that they will be going no matter what they think. Like children learning to swim, sometimes they want to wade in, sometimes their courage deserts them and they want to hold on to the side of the pool - but at school it is more a matter of being thrown right in.

(On one occasion, we had a boy in Year 2 who was allowed to go home at 12 o'clock each day for a few weeks as he got used to school. Other times, we have invited parents to come and help out in the class.)

Early in the school year, the children in the class are faced with their first spelling test. The teacher has put strips of paper on their tables and reads out a list of basic words which the children are meant to have memorised. I'm sat with one group of children whom the teacher expects will not do well. My job is to try and help them think about the sounds of the word so that they can put down the correct letters - "Cat - cu - a - tu, Go - gu - oh. what letter makes a 'gu' sound?" - and so on.

The test started and it was a no-go for my group. Four out of five of them had not the slightest idea what they were doing - they were baffled at the request to write down numbers and then write the spellings by each one. As they fell further behind, I tried to encourage them to think about the words as the teacher read them out. Besnik is keenest for me to help him:

"Up", I told them (pointing to the roof in the gesture of 'up', "Uh - pu. What letter makes an 'Uh' sound?"


"What letter makes an 'uh' sound? Write it there."

"Where, Mr. Alex?"

"Never mind - er... 'Like'... no 'On' - Oh - nnn. What makes an 'oh' sound?"

"Oh - where do I write it? Here?"


"Number four?" Besnik wrote the letter 'O' down but didn't understand my encouragement to write down the second letter, because he had no idea what he was doing. The words kept coming at us, and we fell further behind. Cahil and Ania are copying Besnik and struggling to understand what is going on. Sumita and Mira are working on their own, writing down words on their bits of paper. Their words have no connection to anything they are being asked to write, but there you have it.

The whole thing is going so fast, there's no time to take the children aside and explain what it is that is actually being asked of them. Cahil reached for the alphabet cards on the table in front of him but I told him to put them back because it was a test. I tried telling him what to do again, very gently, not giving any sense of annoyance or pressure. But confused, the tears started rolling down Cahil's cheeks and he whimpered quietly to me, "I want my Mummy."

I told him not to worry and gave the usual assurance that it wasn't long before his Mum would be here, and that the test would be over soon and the rest of the afternoon would be easier. Ania, who was watching started to sniffle jerkily at the sight of Cahil crying for his mother. Meanwhile, the words of the test kept coming.

Sensing the pointlessness of continuing, I got up to ask the teacher if there were many more words to do (there were). She gave me a copy of the list and suggested that I did it myself at Cahil's table.

Having me read out the words wasn't going to make anything better. I asked Cahil, Besnik, and Ania to write out the numbers 1-5, chose several easy words, read them out and just gave them each letter, sounding each one out, so they might have some idea of what was being asked of them. Cahil was still quietly tearful, as was Ania, while Besnik took up all my attention, being the only one still interested in trying to carry on.

Finally, I decided to ask them to spell my name. Cahil started writing again, asking me for the letters. I sounded out 'Alex' and wrote it down, then I started doing the same with their names. "I know how to spell my name!" said Cahil, cutting me off and showing me. Then, thankfully, it was over and time to go to the school library.

We lined up. Ania started crying louder. I gave her the usual reassurances and told her she could hold my toy rabbit if she wanted (she didn't) then tried quietly telling her that she needed to stop crying - not a very sympathetic thing to say, but I wondered if she might respond to it (she didn't). The teacher took her out of the line and asked her to keep a watch on the other children for her, pointing them out if they started talking. That worked - she sort of agreed, stopped crying and held the teacher's hand. Cahil wanted to hold my hand. I let him and we trooped out together.

Perhaps these children could have had the concept of their first spelling test better explained to them beforehand. Although, frankly, if they were confused as to what they were being asked to do and why, they should not be alone. These children do not yet know how to read very much or write very much at all. More importantly, they don't know why reading or writing actually matters - why it is something they would actually want to do, if they knew how.

And schools rarely give children any reason to want to, either. Their first introduction to the world of words comes in the form of skills exercises that have no interest value for them and serve to make them feel incompetent and stupid. This is why the advocates of testing children are so wrong. George Bush's riposte to testing's critics is to state that if children are being "taught to the test" then they will be learning what is required of them. What this mantra does not appreciate is that testing is more often than not, actively destructive of learning.

Imagine a scientist giving a monkey or a blue-jay a puzzle to solve and then banging the nearest wall with a sledgehammer, then wondering why his test animal fails to even go near the puzzle let alone solve it. The pressure of testing puts children, especially little children, on the defensive, on edge, wondering what it will take to get the grown-ups to stop quizzing them. It is a major factor in alienating children from school, and more importantly, from their initial desire to learn about the world around them, which young children are famous for having. As someone who has gone into the education system with the desire to help children, it is frustrating to realise that a lot of the time, what I am actually doing is bullying and tormenting them, in one way or another.

Later, I was asked to take some of the Year 1 children out of class, one at a time, to test them on their reading. We would go through a list of words they are supposed to be able to read, ticking the boxes, or not, as we went along and the children tried to read them out.

I decided to be as gentle as possible. Speaking very softly, I gave each child an idea of what they were going to be asked to do, and told them that if they didn't know a word, they should just say so and we would move on - and that it didn't matter. If they gave a wrong answer, I didn't tell them and moved straight on. I pointed to each word with a pencil, and instead of ticking words they got right, put only the faintest mark beside them in the hope they would not notice that I was recording what they got right and wrong. (It may have worked with some children, but others knew full well what was going on).

Despite such an effort to be gentle, the tension and the fear was still clearly there. One little girl, Kiara, threw her head back and released an almighty sigh as we finished the test and the pressure was lifted.

Some weeks later, I was in a Year 3 class (ages 7-8) which, like the rest of the school, was trying out some new maths tests. On the first question of the easier test, the children were asked to fill out a table with numbers from 1-40. Then, they would colour in specific sqaures according to the instructions. One of these told them to colour in any 1-digit odd number in the fourth column from the right. This presumed, firstly, that the children knew what was meant by "digit", "column", "odd", "fourth from the right" and followed all these instructions correctly.

Few in fact, without heavy-handed assitance from me, even decided to actually read the question - they abandoned the effort early. While most children knew what an odd number was, the idea of digits was still confusing - all the children I spoke to presumed that a 2-digit number meant a number with a 2 in it.

Once all of these confusions had been dealt with, we were left with one final problem - there was no single-digit odd number in the fourth column from the right. Trying to figure it out myself, I was baffled at first, but checking several times, realised that it must be either a mistake or a trick question.

Trick questions are designed to catch out children who don't really know what they are doing. And for that reason, they rank among the cruellest and most pointless thing that is done to children in schools. What does it do to the confidence of children when they know that tests are supposed to catch them out and show them up - in short, humiliate them for what they don't yet understand? A child - or an adult - who has a very good understanding of the basic concepts may enjoy the challenge of attempts to catch them out. But imagine a child still struggling to understand the concepts involved, getting to the end of the question and discovering that what they are being asked is impossible. Unless they are confident enough to know that they are being tricked, they will make the assumption that they must have got it wrong, even when they haven't, and feel that all their thinking was for nought.

After all, how would you respond to an adult asking you a deliberately deceptive question about a subject they knew you had only a limited grasp of? Depending on how eager they were to show you up, you might respond with a confused "Huh?" or you might tell the questioner where to get off. With children it is much the same - only we punish them for it.

One line trotted out in defence of all this is that critics of testing display "the soft bigotry of low expectations". The logical problem with this all-too-covenient line is that it could be used to defend any form of testing, no matter how absurd, inappropriate or detrimental to children's learning. Anyone protesting at even the most bizarre and punitive testing imaginable can be dismissed as having low expectations of the children. But to make it clear, critics of testing do not think that the children are stupid, we think the tests are.

Returning to President Bush's assertion that teaching to the test effectively teaches children English and maths. This is only partly true, in that it is hard for children to learn absolutely nothing at all in the process, though not unheard of - but what teaching to the test mostly teaches is that reading, writing and maths constitute an immensely tedious, stressful and painful experience. What should be a source of joy and an outlet for personal expression - writing what you think, reading things that interest you, looking at how numbers behave and how that affects the world around us - becomes a source of drudgery and personal embarassment, a chore dragged out of most children involuntarily.

There are many different possible approaches to education. One of these is highlighted by the test that Karia did. Most children in her class got very few of the words they are supposed to know by now - including common words like "come", "was", "go" even "the" - a source of anxiety to their teacher. But what words could they read? The answer was quite interesting - every child in the class could read the word "mum" (in the US, "mom"), and most could read "dad", "cat" and "dog".

These words are not harder to read than the ones they got wrong or more common - the difference seems to be is that they are more appealing, more interesting as words as far as children are concerned. Children learn these words more easily, because they are more familiar with the ideas behind them - words like "mum" and "cat" mean something to them. So why not let the learning of little children start, not with what adults think they should know at their age, but with what directly interests the children?

The famous New Zealand teacher, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, did just this in the 1950s when she worked with poor, indigneous Maori children - she would ask individual children what they were frightened of, or what they dreamed about, and then write their favourite words on special cards that she gave them to keep. If the word meant enough to them, they were usually able to learn it almost immediately. That way, when the children came to writing, it was not just a task that the teacher was making them to do, and they would have to do or else miss playtime - it was something that came from the heart. They would write about fighting, kissing, ghosts, wild pigs, bombs, crying, laughing, what they thought of their teacher (not always flattering) - things that meant something to them. And they wrote things like this (I have put these up on this website before, but here they are again):

I went to the river and I kissed Lily and I ran away. Then I kissed Phillipa Then I ran away and went for a swim.

Our baby is dead. She was dead on Monday night. When mummie got it.

Testing does not produce writing like that. It does not belong at the heart of the modern educational system, but in the same chapter of history as the cane.

Southern discomfort

As is well known, the Deep South is afflicted by high levels of poverty compounded by government neglect and corruption - in Italy, that is - as a recent article for Newsweek by by Barbie Nadeau(September 26th 2005) reminds us.

Medical News Today began an article this August:

If southern Italy was thought of as an independent European country, it would be the European country with the highest poverty rate, weighted for national income, say two Italian researchers in an article in this month's open access medical journal PLoS Medicine. And the high poverty rate in the south, they argue, is one of the reasons why the health and social and educational wellbeing of children in the south is worse than that in the north.

Running through the statistics from the Newsweek article of life for the poor, south of Rome:

"Infant mortality in the first 28 days of life is 5.7 per 1,000 live births - four times higher than in the northern provinces and double the european median. The dropout rate for primary-school students - through grade eight - is 24 percent, 2.5 times higher than the rest of Europe... 7.3 million residents in southern Italy make less 521 Euros a month, and half of those live on less than 435 Euros a month, according to ISTAT, Italy's national statistics institute. ... unemployment hovers between 30 and 50 percent and shows little signs of improving."

Maurizio Bonati of the Mother and Child Health Laboratory in Milan told the magazine:

"We're talking about people who cannot buy simple groceries, who cannot buy milk for their children, who cannot find nourishment when they are pregnant."

The impact of this on young people was a subject of a study by the prominent children's health expert, Giorgio Tamburlini of the Institute for Child Health Burlo Garofaloin Trieste, which:

"...found that 17 percent of children and adolescents in southern Italy suffer from mental-health problems including depression, suicide and eating disorders like anorexia."

The divide between the industrialised northern and more argicultural southern Italy has historical roots - as late as 1960, as Barbie Nadeau writes, public anger finally prompted the Italian government to end a situation where 15,000 people literally lived in caves in the province of Basilicata (the landscape used in Mel Gibson' depiction of Jesus' execution, 'The Passion').

In 2000, the European Union and the Italian government together allocated US $50 billion to invest in the Mezzogiorno over a period of six years, which raises the obvious question of why it has yielded such poor results. Nadeau's piece suggests some answers - Prime Minister Silvio "Mussolini never murdered anybody" Berlusconi, the richest man in Italy, has allocated more than half of this money in the province of Campania for recontructing parts of Naples, and in development "along the already rich Amalfi coastline". Thus, much of the money has gone into commercial development rather than public services for the poor. "There are hotels in the south that can demand 500 Euros a night, and families live on less than that just a few kilometers away", says the owner of the Andrisani Enoteca, Francesco Loporfido. Italian capitalism is also noted for high levels of corruption, with some estimates of mafia control of southern businesses being between 30 and 40 percent.

George Tamburlini, discussing solutions (pp 22-4) for dealing more generally with the effects of social inequality on health for Entre Nous, a magzine on maternal health, outlines the most obvious solution:

Targeting poor people is probably the most direct way of reducing disparities. Providing better infrastructure and services in urban slums and poor rural areas, to households which bear the burden of disabled people or critically vulnerable children, or to marginalised ethnic minorities, may all contribute to counteract the inverse care law...

...Policy-makers and health professionals should call for investments in sectors such as education, nutrition, environment and community development to reduce the impact of poverty on reproductive
health. More equitable health financing and provision systems can alleviate the effects of societal inequity, but quality of health services must be ensured in order to achieve real health gains.

In the meantime, a bad situation is not changing for the better. Says Maurizio Bonati, "Especially in the south, people feel that is their destiny to remain poor."


Mission from God

Old news, a fellow peace activist told me when the Independent ran on its front page the not-so-revelatory-revelation from an upcoming BBC documentary that George Bush had claimed that God had personally commanded him to invade Iraq, among other requests. What next, he asked - would the BBC run a story telling us that no WMD had been found in Iraq?

The new BBC series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 'Elusive Peace - Israel and the Arabs' included an interview with Palestinian Authority negotiator Nabil Shaath in which he claimed:

"President Bush said to all of us: 'I'm driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan. And I did, and then God would tell me, George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq... And I did.'

Certainly this is not a new claim. What should surprise us (a bit) then, is that the White House has issued a denial, with its increasingly desperate spokesman Scott McClellan informing reporters that: "He's never made such comments."

This is not an honest administration by any stretch of the imagination, but really - what is this? Never made such comments? Not just this one, but never anything like it? Not only is it very likely that George Bush made that particular remark, or something like it, but he has certainly made "such remarks" rather often.

Faced with a slightly awkward controversy, Nabil Shaath had downplayed his remarks, arguing that he did not believe Bush meant what he said quite literally, but without substantially changing his account.

The Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz, had already reported this story back in June 2003, when Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas had said in passing in a speech he gave at Aqaba to various Palestinian political groups that Bush had told him and others:

"God told me to strike at al-Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East. If you help me I will act, and if not, the elections will come and I will have to focus on them."

The speech was not an attack on Bush, but rather designed to reassure Palestinian radicals that Washington's Road Map strategy was the Palestinians' best hope. (Quick - when was the last time you heard about the Road Map'?)

Veteran Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, in his book on the decision-making behind the Iraq War, Plan of Attack, also records "such comments".

On page 379, Bush is quoted offering the somewhat contradictory statement of his conduct on the day the invasion began: "Going into this period, I was praying for strength to do the Lord's will... I'm surely not going to justify war based upon God. Understand that. Nevertheless, I pray that in my case that I be as a good a messenger of his will as possible". He added, "And then of course, I pray for personal strength and for forgiveness." He may need to get working on that last one.

In an interview in December 2003, Woodward asked him if he had sought advice on prosecuting the invasion of Iraq from his father. George Bush Senior famously rejected the neo-conservative vision of transforming the Gulf region by occupying Iraq at the end of the 1991 Gulf War in favour of returning to the previous (and comparably immoral) policy of relying on Saddam Hussein's fascist regime to stabilise Iraq.

In part of his reply, Bush said that he had not really discussed the Iraq War very much with his biological father: "You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength, there is a higher father that I appeal to." So which higher father would that be then, Mr. McClellan? Dick Cheney? Karl Rove? These statements are not explained as standard Christian prayers for personal strength and guidance, rather they fit a pattern of statements in which Bush sees himself as possessing a unique divine role in history.

Years before, Bush had told the Texan evangelist James Robinson that his decision to run for president was a response to God's calling: 'I feel like God wants me to run for President. I can't explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen... I know it won't be easy on me or my family, but God wants me to do it.' (Does Bush still modestly sense that his country needs him, now that his country senses it does not?)

Speaking to a group of Amish in July 2004, the President informed them, "I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job," as reported by the Lancaster New Era in Pennsylvania.

Charles Pugley Fincher

An image of a president who sees his actions and God's will in the world as the same thing is consistent with accounts of Bush's management of the White House in which aides have described a president who frequently conflates his will with God's, and an atmosphere in which staffers are reluctant to give the president bad news for fear that he will make them regret telling him - such as reports of failings in the federal response to the avoidable destruction of New Orleans, for instance.
In June 2004, Doug Thompson reported for Capitol Hill Blue in a remarkable but neglected piece that:

'President George W. Bush’s increasingly erratic behavior and wide mood swings has the halls of the West Wing buzzing lately as aides privately express growing concern over their leader’s state of mind.

'In meetings with top aides and administration officials, the President goes from quoting the Bible in one breath to obscene tantrums against the media, Democrats and others that he classifies as “enemies of the state.”

'In interviews with a number of White House staffers who were willing to talk off the record, a picture of an administration under siege has emerged, led by a man who declares his decisions to be “God’s will” and then tells aides to “fuck over” anyone they consider to be an opponent of the administration.

'God may also be the reason Attorney General John Ashcroft, the administration’s lightning rod because of his questionable actions that critics argue threatens freedoms granted by the Constitution, remains part of the power elite. West Wing staffers call Bush and Ashcroft “the Blues Brothers” because “they’re on a mission from God.”

'“The Attorney General is tight with the President because of religion,” says one aide.
“They both believe any action is justifiable in the name of God.”'

Doug Thompson's article shed new light on the departure of CIA director, George Tenet, who issued a statement of resignation, citing "personal reasons" in June 2004. Apparently, Bush decided to sack Tenet after he expressed minor disagreement with the President, exploding with the words "That's it George. I cannot abide disloyalty. I want your resignation and I want it now." The following day, according to Thompson's account, Bush told shocked aides that George Tenet had voluntarily resigned - which they knew not to be true - and that his departure was "God's will".

Bush makes the kinds of remarks mentioned here for two reasons. The first is that many of them play very well with Christian fundamentalist voters and with the American right in general who admire such sentiments for much the same reasons as American and European liberals resent them. Bush's speeches, carrying heavy religious imagery and vocabulary, are often scorned by the secular-minded in the US and on this side of the Atlantic as moronic. While this is true, it is also true that they constitute a highly successful and calculating political strategy that has helped garner popular relgious sentiments in the US to the benefit of the Republican Party. Similarly, Bush's speechwriters do not employ public religiosity because they do not understand how much it aggravates secular liberals and left-wingers, but because they know it will, and they know this will delight their grassroots supporters. To the religious left, Bush's remarks are also highly offensive, but they do not constitute a large enough constituency to bother the White House.

Newsweek cover, March 2003

The second reason is that Bush actually believes his own words and does see himself as personally carrying out God's will, so that his religiosity serves as an ideological crutch for phenomenal personal arrogance, vindictiveness, thoughtlessness and monomania.

Bob Woodward's mild prompting of Bush produced the following exchange (Plan of Attack, p420):

We turned to the question of doubts. I quoted what Tony Blair recently had said at his party's annual conference: "I do not at all disparage anyone who disagrees with me." Blair had also said he had received letters from those who had lost sons in the war who wrote that they hated him for what he did. I quoted Blair, "And don't believe anyone who tells you when they receive letters like that they don't suffer any doubt."

"Yeah," President Bush replied. "I haven't suffered doubt."

"Is that right?" I asked. "Not at all?"

"No. And I'm able to convey that to the people." To those who had lost sons and daughters, he said,
"I hope I'm able to convey that in a humble way."

In my humble way, Mrs Sheehan, I have no doubts whatsoever about deploying your late son, Casey, in Najaf last year, nor have I ever seriously considered whether it was the right thing to do. Would you buy it?

All this we already knew. What is slightly surprising is that the White House bothered to lie about it, when their denial is so easily refuted. They could have ignored the minor controversy, or just complained that the British press doesn't understand US religious values, but instead they issued a categorical and implausible denial that Bush wouldn't even say such a thing, ever.

Possibly, such a nervous twitch indicates that they no longer think the US public would respond well to the idea that the President believes that his catastrophic war in Iraq is part of a divinely-ordained mission for which he was appointed. Which is what he thinks.

The Fight Against Al-Jazeera

They prod and hint, you decide. Fox News brings you a photograph of the hapless US Marine Corps Captain Joshua Rushing. Below is the caption 'TRAITOR?' Cut to commercial break - and while the ads start plying you to buy things you don't need, viewers of Fox can decide for themselves, on the basis of almost no information, whether they hate Captain Rushing or not. In this way, does Fox empower its viewers to hate someone they've never met before and may know nothing at all about.

You may have come across Capt. Joshua Rushing before if you have seen The Control Room, the documentary on life inside the Arab world's most-watched and most independent television network, Al-Jazeera (literally 'The Island' or 'The (Arabian) Peninsula') from its headquarters in Doha, Qatar. Rushing was the oddly likeable public relations man for US Central Command in Doha, whose job it was to rehash the Bush administration's line to Al-Jazeera's journalists as the invasion of Iraq proceeded in the spring of 2003. Over the course of the film, however, it was clear that far from convincing anyone, Rushing himself was being changed by his experience of working with Arab journalists. At the end of the film he conceded that US media representations of the Palestinians were unfair, for instance, and expressed the wildly optimistic view that he might be able to do something about it when he returned to the US.

Rushing does not withdraw his support for the Iraq War at any point in the movie, but does express his self-doubt very openly - something you are not supposed to do if you want to be a PR zombie. He is shown questioning himself over why he felt more upset at footage of dead US soldiers than dead Iraqi civilians: "It upset me on a profound level that I wasn't bothered as much the night before. It makes me hate war. But it doesn't make me believe we can live in a world without war yet."

Rushing's appearance in the Control Room earned him limited celebrity status among its viewers, and enemy status among the US Marine Corps' most senior officers.

Rushing went on to give follow-up television interviews, and it was at this point that the Pentagon decided that "He was way too far in the opinion realm", in the delicate words of Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Kay, deputy director of public relations for the Marine Corps. Rushing was barred from giving further interviews. His wife, Paige Rushing, complained to the press - and so the Pentagon asked Rushing to keep her quiet as well.

Other military PR personnel complained about the treatment of Rushing on the obvious grounds that it was bad PR - Rushing had done a good job for the US army, they argued, by convincing Arab audiences that US military personnel could be honest and thoughtful.

Rushing has now resigned from the US army and has taken up a job with Al-Jazeera International, the station's new English language project. It was this that prompted Fox to ask its viewers whether or not he should be considered to have committed no less than an act of treason.

So what did Rushing say that went out too far into the realm of opinion, as opposed to the highly objective position of the White House? It wasn't just his discomfort with images of death from Iraq or his remarks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was rather the fact that he helped to normalise Arab opinion by engaging in conversations with Arab journalists as though their points of view might be reasonable. He challenged the official view of the Al-Jazeera network and in so doing, unintentionally opened the way for serious consideration of popular Arab political views by western viewers.

This is what Rushing told Village Voice in May:

"People don't understand what a complex organization Al Jazeera is. They say it's all Islamists, or Ba'athists, or Arab nationalists. You have all that, but you have really progressive voices too. Al Jazeera shows it all. It turns your stomach, and you remember there's something wrong with war."

Compare this with Donald Rumsfeld's view of the network (hilarious unintentional irony included):

"It seems to me that it is up to all of us to tell the truth, to say what we know and what we don't know and recognise that we are dealing with people [the Al-Jazeera network] who are perfectly willing to lie to the world to attempt to further their case. And to the extent people lie, ultimately they are caught lying and they lose their credibility and one would think it wouldn't take very long for that to happen in dealing with people like this."

Such an hysterical view of Al-Jazeera as a station of pathological and committed liars has been repeated by the Secretary of Defence elsewhere:

"Truth ultimately finds its way to people's ears and eyes and hearts and I don't worry about that over the long-term. Does it make me sad to see television saying things that are flat not true and people printing things in that part of the world that are flat not true, children being taught things that are flat not true? Yes, it bothers me."

Truth ultimately finds its way to people's ears and eyes and hearts... we can only hope. Anyway, it is possible to see where Rushing's opinions diverge from the expressed views of the Pentagon and Department of Defence.

The slightly more sober State Department echoed these sentiments, with its spokesman Richard Boucher informing us in April 2004 (a time when they had every reason to divert the public gaze from events in Iraq): "On Iraq they have established a pattern of false reporting."

In a bleak political landscape, Al-Jazeera represents a major positive development for the Arab world - a popular news channel that is allowed to operate freely, exposing some of the corruption, deception and brutality of its ruling cliques, dictatorships and the uninvited great powers endlessly crashing into the place. For the first time, diverse political opinions from across the region are being given an airing - little wonder then that the network has won the undying enmity of so many.

That the US government should hate it too is also not surprising given that the US political, military and economic role in the region is so unpopular. But Washington's hostility to Al-Jazeera reveals the untruthfulness of the Bush administration's claim to support the spread of democracy in Arab countries.

The Control Room gives some examples of political opinions of Al-Jazeera staff. We do not find supporters of Osama Bin Laden or people who want to throw Jews into the Mediterranean or the cartoon Al-Jazeera that exists in the mind of American ultra-nationalists. Instead we find such views as those expressed by journalists like Hassan Ibrahim, who mocks Arab anti-Jewish paranoia for instance:

"See the problem with the Middle East is everything is an Israeli conspiracy - everything! If a water pipe breaks in the centre of Damascus it will be blamed on the Israelis - instead of blaming it on our own incompetence."

Al-Jazeera is in fact the first Arab television network to employ Israelis on its staff. In a debate with a colleague on how US military dominance of the region can be stopped, Hassan expresses confidence in the US constitution and American people:

"The question is, who's going to stop the United States? Who is going to do that? You need a new group. A powerful group."

"The United States is going to stop the United States. I have absolute confidence in the American constitution. And I have absolute confidence in the ability of the American people. The United States people are going to stop the United States Empire."

In condemning Al-Jazeera as malicious propagandists, the Bush administration aligns itself with some pretty ugly company. In July 2004, the gruesome Algerian government put a stop to the reporting of Al-Jazeera's correspondent in Algiers and even shut down power stations to prevent the broadcast of unwelcome reports. The network was temporarily banned in Bahrain in 2002 after the dictatorship decided its broadcasts were biased against the governments - and indeed the whole countries - of Bahrain and Israel. Conversely, Al-Jazeera has been accused by Islamists of being biased towards Israel by giving too much broadcast time to Israeli spokesmen and they have dubbed the network "Al-Khinzeera" - "the Pig" - a particularly serious insult coming from them.

In 2003, Al-Jazeera became the first international television network to report on the unfolding genocide in Darfur by the Sudanese military-Islamist regime against the black Africans in the west of the country, or zurga ("niggers"), as their killers call them. The butchers of Khartoum responded by arresting Al-Jazeera's correspondent and kicking him out of the country in December 2003, shutting down the network's operations in the capital. The Sudanese regime made the rather familiar accusation that it produced reports "stuffed with false information and poor biased analyses". Touchy people, obviously.

When Boucher and Rumsfeld declared that Al-Jazeera was misrepresenting the situation in Iraq, they were in agreement with Saddam Hussein, whose Iraqi Ministry of Information initially banned the network's Tayseer Allouni (more on him further down) and Diyar Al-Omari from the country. The US-appointed Iraqi Interim Government, under Iyad Allawi, followed directly in Saddam Hussein's footsteps in re-imposing temporary bans, claiming that the station was giving Iraq a bad image and inciting the mujahideen to attack Coalition troops. In April 2005, the Iranian regime became another ally against Al-Jazeera and banned it, accusing it of inflaming unrest among Iran's Arab minority in the south-west of the country (not two years after Iranian secret police beat to death the Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi, incidentally) . And so on and so forth.

In such inglorious company does the Bush administration find itself - with every spook, ghoul and reactionary that haunts South-West Asia and North Africa in deciding that a television station is a cause of the region's problems.

The US hatred of Al-Jazeera has a positively lethal ring to it. On April 8th, 2003, as US forces began to enter the city, a US A-10 Warthog fighter plane bombed Al-Jazeera's Baghdad headquarters, killing their correspondent Tarek Ayyoub. This was not the first time the US airforce had bombed an Al-Jazeera station, and this time the network had taken the precaution of providing the US government with detailed information of their position so as to avoid a repeat of what happened in Kabul.

Responding to queries about the killing of Tarek Ayyoub, the official US response was its aircraft had come under hostile fire from the Al-Jazeera building - a claim for which there is no evidence. Combined as it was with a US artillery assault on the Palestine Hotel where Reuters correspondent Taras Protsyuk and Jose Couso of a Spanish network were killed by US tank fire, Al-Jazeera personnel drew the conclusion, justified or not, that they the US government had deliberately decided to hit them and other journalists.

[Update - a Spanish judge has issued a warrant for the pilots who killed Jose Couso]

Certainly, Al-Jazeera's unthinking critics in the US have made nothing by way of an apology for this incident. Instead they prefer to make out that the TV station is the aggressor. In July, Al-Jazeera planned to film a report on Mexican immigration into the United States. A new racist vigilante group calling themselves the Minutemen, who track down Latin American immigrants on the US-Mexico border, announced that they would also resist Al-Jazeera's efforts to film in Arizona.

Republican congressman for the state, Trent Franks, also complained, arguing that "It is insane policy to allow al-Jazeera to film Arizona's unsecured border with Mexico and then broadcast it to the very people who perpetrated 9/11." You see - if Bin Ladenists were watching they might seek to exploit the weaknesses of the Arizona border patrols and thus slip into the US via Mexico. Presumably, CNN, Fox, the BBC etc. should also be forbidden to report on all policing and social issues lest terrorists exploit anything they see in the footage. But only Al-Jazeera is lumbered with the image as Terrorist TV. The project was abandoned and the Minutemen declared an "anti-terrorist victory" in their moronic official statement -
"The world's most prolific terrorism television network has cancelled its recon operation at the Arizona/Mexico border."

Currently the Bush administration is seeking to undermine Al-Jazeera with more subtle tactics than incitement or firing missiles in its direction.
Steven Weisman reported for the New York Times in January this year that relations between the US government and Qatar's monarchical despotism were good:

"The tiny state of Qatar is a crucial American ally in the Persian Gulf, where it provides a military base and warm support for American policies."

Indeed, the country's capital, Doha, was used for the World Trade Organisation's fourth ministerial meeting in 2001 so that the delegates
could take advantage of Qatar's protestor-free streets, public protest being illegal. But one issue was spoiling this picture of harmony:

Yet relations with Qatar are also strained over an awkward issue: Qatar's sponsorship of Al Jazeera, the provocative television station that is a big source of news in the Arab world.

...The pressure has been so intense, a senior Qatari official said, that the government is accelerating plans to put Al Jazeera on the market, though Bush administration officials counter that a privately owned station in the region may be no better from their point of view.

"We have recently added new members to the Al Jazeera editorial board, and one of their tasks is to explore the best way to sell it," said the Qatari official, who said he could be more candid about the situation if he was not identified.

Meanwhile, other western governments have put pressure on Al-Jazeera.
Canadian authorities announced their intention to monitor Al-Jazeera 24 hours a day and pressure distributors into censoring "abusive comments", one of those broad categories that helps censors cover a multitude of (their) sins. In Spain, the judge Baltasar Garzon (who has made better decisions in his career, such as issuing arrest warrants for General Pinochet and Henry Kissinger) issued a warrant for Al-Jazeera reporter Tayseer Allouni in September 2003, charging Tayseer with supporting al-Qa'ida. Pleading not guilty, Tayseer was jailed for collaborating with al-Qa'ida - the principal evidence for which was that he had interviewed Osama Bin Laden (prior to 9/11). The judgement of the court was criticised by Reporters Sans Frontieres. Allouni suffers from heart disease and was denied leave to attend his mother's funeral in Syria.

Al-Jazeera has yet to make to make a profit despite an international audience somewhere between 30 and 50 million viewers. As a result it is dependent in more ways than one on the subsidy and patronage of the Qatari regime. Privatisation could affect Al-Jazeera in a number of ways, though as Steven Weisman wrote, the White House may still be unsatisfied by a broken and less well-protected station. The Bush administration has also set up a rival station to get its own message across, Al Hurra. The New York Times dryly notes that
"administration officials say it has yet to gain much of a following."

A legitimate line of criticism of Al-Jazeera is that its actual reporting lacks professionalism - for instance, during the invasion of Iraq, the network reported a number of rumours with little verifiable substance. As Al-Jazeera expands and sets up its English-language channel, Al-Jazeera International,
many at the network hope to address this problem and improve the quality of their journalism. Saying that, more established media outlets are in a poor position to criticise.

Only last month, numerous Western media outlets reporting on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina gave credence to numerous lurid stories of murder, rape and violence in New Orleans among its beleaguered survivors, the great bulk of which have turned out to be unsubstantiated rumours. Otherwise powerful coverage of the neglect and betrayal of the New Orleans poor by the US government and the chaotic scenes faced by those trying to save lives was undermined by this credulous reporting that served to reinforce racist images of the victims as animal-like. This is not to mention other episodes, such as the continued regurgitation by western journalists of White House garbage on the subject of Iraq, both before the invasion and ever since. As the
New York Times discovered, for instance, Al-Jazeera is far from the only news service that needs to monitor its reporting. And the NYT is at least distinguished by its surface-scratching introspection, absent in many other publications and news outlets.

Hopefully Al-Jazeera will continue to grow as a challenging news service and a force for freedom of speech across Arabic-speaking countries, but it's numerous enemies are a determined and ruthless bunch. It is important that all of them lose in their efforts to quash the emergence of independent voices as badly as they deserve to.

Some links for more information (most sources are available through links in the article):

Friends of Al-Jazeera campaigns for freedom of speech in South-West Asia.

Reporters Without Borders

US Presses for Censorship of Jazeera TV, Human Rights Watch, 2001

Under Pressure, Qatar May Sell Jazeera Station,
Steven Weisman, New York Times, Jan 30th, 2005 (registration required)

Petition for Tayseer Allouni (in French)

Guns Don't Kill People, Newsweek Does

In its May 9th edition, the US magazine Newsweek published a short report by the investigative reporter Michael Isikoff and its security correspondent John Barry on expected features of an upcoming internal military investigation into the treatment of prisoners in Camp X-Ray at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay in a US-occupied part of Cuba (long story). The report included an allegation from an anonymous source that a US interrogator had flushed a copy of the Qur'an down a toilet, an allegation not included in other FBI e-mails that Isikoff and Barry had reviewed.

Link to spoof here

The report was publicised by political and religious figures in Pakistan and prompted large protests and riots aimed at the US presence in Afghan cities such as Jalalabad and Kabul, at the end of which at least 15 people were dead. In the tense political situation, Newsweek's source, a Pentagon official, stated that he was no longer sure in which document he had read the allegation and whether it would be in the US Couther Command (SouthCom) report on ill-treatment of prisoners in Cuba and Afghanistan as he had previously said. On May 16th, amid heavy criticism from the Pentagon and the White House, Newsweek editor Mike Whitaker retracted the story and issued an apology.

A few relevant facts:

1) The Pentagon has since confirmed a number of cases where the Qur'an has in fact been desecrated by interrogators and guards at Guantanamo Bay.
2) The Pentagon was shown the Newsweek story in advance and made no comment on the allegation concerning the Qur'an.
3) The specific allegation about the Qur'an being flushed down the toilet was almost certainly true, and may have happened on several occasions.
4) That allegation, did, as the report accurately predicted, feature in the SouthCom report on its completion.
5) Those killed in the rioting were mostly killed not by the rioters but by the Afghan police, firing on them.

Before going any further, here is the original Newsweek story in full, since few people have actually had the chance to read it despite widespread discussion of its contents - or at least one portion of one of its sentences:

Gitmo: SouthCom Showdown

May 9 issue - Investigators probing interrogation abuses at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay have confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails that surfaced late last year. Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell NEWSWEEK: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash. An Army spokesman confirms that 10 Gitmo interrogators have already been disciplined for mistreating prisoners, including one woman who took off her top, rubbed her finger through a detainee's hair and sat on the detainee's lap. (New details of sexual abuse—including an instance in which a female interrogator allegedly wiped her red-stained hand on a detainee's face, telling him it was her menstrual blood—are also in a new book to be published this week by a former Gitmo translator.)

These findings, expected in an upcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, could put former Gitmo commander Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller in the hot seat. Two months ago a more senior general, Air Force Lt. Gen. Randall Schmidt, was placed in charge of the SouthCom probe, in part, so Miller could be questioned. The FBI e-mails indicate that FBI agents quarreled repeatedly with military commanders, including Miller and his predecessor, retired Gen. Michael Dunleavy, over the military's more aggressive techniques. "Both agreed the bureau has their way of doing business and DOD has their marching orders from the SecDef," one e-mail stated, referring to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Sources familiar with the SouthCom probe say investigators didn't find that Miller authorized abusive treatment. But given the complaints that were being raised, sources say, the report will provoke questions about whether Miller should have known what was happening—and acted to try to prevent it. An Army spokesman declined to comment.

-Michael Isikoff and John Barry

Editor's Note: On May 16, Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker issued the following statement: "Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Qur'an abuse at Guantanamo Bay."

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

Being as familiar with the Bush administration as tediously as many of you already are, we really should all be beyond the stage of expressing surprise to learn that its various spokespeople have acted dishonestly and without shame.

And yet, there is still something about the total lack of scruple in the claims the White House made to our faces that can prompt an involuntary widening of the mouth. The spectacle of someone who acts as though they have no concept of shame in their mental world is really awesome to behold.

For this reason, let us return again (and again and again) to the Newsweek/Qur'an abuse/White House sordidness. Now that it is fairly well established that the short Newsweek story that noted in passing that flushing a Qur'an down the toilet was used as an interrogation and punishment technique in the internment camp at Guanatanamo Bay was accurate in substance and detail, re-visit these:

"Newsweek hid behind anonymous sources, which by their own admission do not withstand scrutiny. Unfortunately, they cannot retract the damage they have done to this nation or those that were viciously attacked by those false allegations."

That's Bryan Whitman, spokesman for the Pentagon - who added that the Newsweek story was "irresponsible" and "demonstrably false". Care to demonstrate its falsity for us, Bryan?

“They printed a story based on an erroneous source or sources that was demonstrably wrong and that resulted in riots in which people were killed.”

That's Lawrence Di Rita, chief spokesman for the Pentagon, who also claims the ability to demonstrate that the story was false. The world awaits this demonstration too. Di Rita also said of the anonymous Pentagon source:

"People are dead because of what this son of a bitch said. How could he be credible now?"

And then: "The report has had serious consequences. People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged.”

Scott McClellan, the spokesman for the White House. We can particularly enjoy the implication that the image of the United States abroad was doing just fine before Newsweek came along and spoiled everything. MSNBC News reported that the White House helpfully suggested to Newsweek ways that it could make up for the damage they accused it of causing:

"The administration called on Newsweek to explain how it got the story wrong and to report on U.S. military practices intended to ensure that the Quran is handled with respect. The State Department told its embassies to spread the word abroad that America respects all religious faiths."

What is perhaps most interesting, from the point of view of a psychologist studying human behaviour, is the way these people express outrage with such passion and indignation as though they are the injured party, when the reverse is the case.

What is merely dismal is the way that so much of the media and the blogosphere took their cue from these people and helped create an atmosphere in which a prominent news magazine decided on a cowardly retraction of an accurate news story. Alongside the official, gleeful effort to land a kick on Newsweek as it stumbled, the media bullies of American ultra-nationalism quickly leapt at the chance to take on a weaker opponent, as they always do.

This is from Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, talking to the National Conservative Student Conference:

'And we see it in the media obsession with the abuses at that prison in Iraq or with the alleged abuses in Gitmo, where there's this implicit suggestion that it makes us just as bad as the people we're fighting. And this story about the alleged Koran flushing down at Gitmo -- my friend and colleague Jonah Goldberg, I think, had the most memorable take on the story, which is: How is it possible to flush a Koran down a toilet? Especially since the EPA has mandated these environmentally correct, small-flush toilets -- you're lucky to get a pamphlet down there, let alone a whole book. And as Jonah says, what the scandal should have been -- all of America should have been rising up as one saying, "What are we doing giving the terrorists our very best toilets down there in Gitmo?"'

Not laughing? Aw shucks, can't you take a joke? Perhaps Mr. Lowry will be delighted to learn that many Guantanamo prisoners, including shepherds past their 80th year and guilty of no offence whatsoever, are denied access to the toilet and left to wallow in their own excrement? (As described by an internal, unpublished CIA investigation, quoted in Seymour Hersh's Chain of Command). The conference was advertised as an opportunity to "Gain a better understanding of conservative principles." Perhaps we might take their word for it.

Blogs for Bush urged its readers:

"Spread the word - send this linked article [on Newsweek's retraction] to everyone you know; if you run a blog, link it and report on it. Don't let our near-treasonous MSM [Mainstream Media] betray our brave men and women in Iraq."

Read those statements again and then compare them with this letter written by the London director of Human Rights Watch, Steve Crawshaw, to the Independent:

"The Newsweek reference was far from new: we have repeatedly heard credible allegations about American interrogators mistreating copies of the Koran - tearing out pages, or throwing it into the toilet - for more than two years." (Emphasis added)

Human Rights Watch is not an underground organisation - it sends copies of its investigations to government departments complete with lists of recommendations and they appear on its website - www.hrw.org. They are however, regularly and reflexively unread and ignored - as when Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, then commander of US ground forces in Iraq, laughed in Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow's face when Snow asked if the General had read a HRW report on unlawful killings of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad by US soldiers.

Returning to Lawrence Di Rita's statements to the press, journalist David Corn performed a pretty devastating fact-checking exercise. DiRita on May 17th:

Q: Larry, just to be clear, there have been numerous allegations by detainees who have been released --

MR. DI RITA: Mm-hmm.

Q : -- by attorneys who have talked to detainees, alleging mistreatment of the Koran, including instances where it was supposedly thrown into a toilet. Are you saying that none of those allegations were credible, and that none of them have -- have any of them been investigated, and were any substantiated?

MR. DI RITA: We've found nothing that would substantiate precisely -- anything that you just said about the treatment of a Koran. We have -- other than what we've seen, that it's possible detainees themselves have done with pages of the Koran -- and I don't want to overstate that either because it's based on log entries that have to be corroborated.

A few days later, on May 26th, when certain public revelations no longer made such a blatant falsehood passable, DiRita back-tracked, telling reporters:

"First off, I'd like you to know that we have found no credible evidence that a member of the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Bay ever flushed a Koran down a toilet. We did identify 13 incidents of alleged mishandling of the Koran by Joint Task Force personnel. Ten of those were by a guard and three by interrogators."

So after acknowledging that copies of the Qur'an were purposefully damaged as a method of interrogation and punishment - a point that considerably reduces the Bush administration's scope for indignation at the press - Di Rita is left with the somewhat more pathetic insistence that at least no Qur'an was flushed down a toilet, (in case we had forgotten that Newsweek was meant to be the principal villain here).

One thing illustrated by this episode was the way that the principal media outlets act together as a herd, often with the White House acting as the shepherd. Discussion narrowed at the behest of those like DiRita, who were in a spot of trouble, on to the issue of whether anyone at Guantanamo had actually stuffed a Qur'an down a toilet - six words in an article that mentioned several other violations of international humanitarian law. Note also the last sentence of the Newsweek article, "An Army spokesman declined to comment." That is, the Pentagon were given the chance to read the article and comment on this matter before publication, but chose not to, despite their later insistence that the allegation was an outrageous falsehood, demonstrably so, and was damaging to image of the United States abroad.

What's more, despite the absurd claim from the right that the not-particularly-liberal media are going out of their way to challenge the President, this episode shows that the reverse is true - Newsweek went out of its way to show deference to the Pentagon.

So was the only claim that the White House and Pentagon were left clinging to after their pre-emptive assault on the media landed them in a quagmire - that the Qur'an was not actually put into a toilet - true? Probably not. In a joint piece for the International Herald Tribune, Saman Zia-Zarifi, the deputy director of the HRW Asia division and John Sifton an HRW Afghanistan researcher restated:

For more than two years before the magazine ran its story, newspapers in the United States, Britain and throughout the Muslim world published interviews in which detainees held by the United States at Guantánamo, in Afghanistan and in Iraq claimed that their guards and interrogators had denigrated Islamic religious symbols and, in particular, desecrated copies of the Koran by kicking them across the floor, tearing out pages and tossing them into toilets. Several former detainees held by U.S. forces in Afghanistan told Human Rights Watch how prisoners at the U.S. air base in Kandahar protested after a guard allegedly kicked a copy of the Koran while searching a cell.

It is almost certain that those cases the Pentagon claims to have investigated do not represent the sum total. The allegation seems particularly credible given what we know for certain of actual treatment of prisoners in Camp X-Ray, and the research of HRW and the International Committee of the Red Cross which attempted to publicise cases involving damaging copies of the Qur'an back in 2002. Released British detainees of Camp X-Ray have also stated:

"...when Korans were provided, they were kicked and thrown about by the guards and on occasion thrown in the buckets used for the toilets. This kept happening. When it happened it was always said to be accident but it was a recurrent theme".

New York attorney Mike Falkoff told the BBC that in August 2003, when a camp guard had stamped on a copy of the Qur'an, 23 prisoners had attempted to commit suicide en masse in response. A similar incident provoked a hunger strike among internees in May this year until an apology was issued over the camp's loud-speakers.

Excerpts from New York times, displayed at Wikipedia

When the SouthCom report was published on May 26th, the allegation about the Qu'ran in the toilet was included, just as Mike Isikoff and John Barry's original article had told us it would.

Perhaps Bryan Whiteman and Lawrence Di Rita will at some point demonstrate that these mutiple claims are false as they stated categorically that they could do, but don't wait up.

As with Dan Rather's report for CBS on Bush's National Guard service, with Andrew Gilligan's report for the BBC on Blair's statements on Iraqi Weapons programmes or with Piers Morgan's decision to show faked photographs of actual British army torture in Iraq - a government in trouble saw in the Newsweek story an opportunity to exploit a journalistic mistake and to divert attention from their own misdeeds while intimidating an already pretty conformist media. But while the Bush administration's apologists were well able to get across their version of events loudly, this time the bad faith was also widely exposed - and for once an attempt to bash the media backfired somewhat.

The White House criticised the media for using anonymous sources, a practice that bothers them for obvious reasons - it is the only way the public can hear the objections and protests of the employees of secretive and unaccountable institutions. Such criticism was particularly absurd coming from the White House which regularly leaks information to journalists via anonymous individuals in backroom briefings (among many, many other violations of journalistic ethics - such as inserting propaganda articles and TV broadcasts directly into the mainstream press). Not oblivious to these hypocrisies, Scott McClellan was challenged by the White House press corps:

Q: In context of the Newsweek situation, I think we hear the caution you're giving us about reporting things based on a single anonymous source. What, then, are we supposed to do with information that this White House gives us under the conditions that it comes from a single anonymous source?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not sure what exactly you're referring to.

Q: Frequent briefings by senior administration officials in which the ground rules are we can only identify them as a single anonymous source.

MR. McCLELLAN: Ken, I know that there is an issue when it comes to the media in terms of the use of anonymous sources, but the issue is not related to background briefings. But I do believe that we should work to move away from those kind of background briefings. ...
But there is a credibility problem in the media regarding the use of anonymous sources, but it's because of fabricated stories, and it's because of situations like this one over the weekend. It's not because of the background briefings that you may be referring to.

Q: What prevents this administration from just saying from this point forward, you will identify who it is that's talking to us?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, in terms of background briefings, if that's what you're asking about, which I assume it is, let me point out that what I'm talking about there are officials who are helping to provide context to on-the-record comments made by people like the President or the Secretary of State or others. ... And as I said, one of the concerns is that some media organizations have used anonymous sources that are hiding behind that anonymity in order to generate negative attacks.

Q: But to our readers, viewers and listeners, I think it's all the same.

MR. McCLELLAN: And then you have a situation -- you have a situation where we found out later that quotes were attributed to people that they didn't make. Or you have a situation where you now learn that a single source was used for verifying this allegation -- and that source, himself, said he could not personally verify the accuracy of the report. ...

Q: With all due respect, though, it sounds like you're saying your single anonymous sources are OK and everyone else's aren't.

Read the rest here.

Making our way through the multiple, dense levels of bad faith on show here, leaves us with one of the least investigated aspects of this whole story. As Scott McClellan told us earlier, "People have lost their lives".

Which people? And who killed them? And what, if anything, does a Newsweek report have to do with it?

On May 6th, former Pakistani cricketer turned political opportunist Imran Khan brandished Newsweek's report at a press conference, announcing "This is what the U.S. is doing, desecrating the Qur'an." The particular allegation concerning the toilet was hardly central to Khan's point, and he could have cited any number of different reports of similar allegations. Newsweek, incidentally, was banned in Pakistan in November 2004 becuase of an article about the Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh, who was murdered by an Islamist in the Netherlands last year (an issue of Newsweek was also banned in Bangladesh in 2003 following an article about misogyny in the Qur'an).

How a Fire Broke Out

Picking up where Mr. Khan left off, other politicians and clerics in Pakistan issued similar statements and prompted angry protests, particularly among those who regard damage to the Qur'an as more heinous than torturing human beings:

"We can understand torturing prisoners, no matter how repulsive," says computer teacher Muhammad Archad, interviewed last week by NEWSWEEK in Peshawar, Pakistan, where one of last week's protests took place. "But insulting the Qur'an is like deliberately torturing all Muslims. This we cannot tolerate."

The first riot took place in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad on May 11th. BBC Online describes it like this:

"At least four people have died and many were hurt after police fired shots to disperse anti-US protests in the Afghan city of Jalalabad, officials say."

The indication is that the Afghan police fired on an unarmed crowd in a small but deliberate massacre. In what circumstances they opened fire is left unsaid. Despite US protestations that allegations concerning the Qur'an would be investigated, the circumstances in which people were actually killed apparently aroused the interest of almost no one. The following day, May 12th, the BBC reported on three more deaths:

"Two people died in a shooting near the city of Jalalabad. Another person was killed west of the capital, Kabul."

Who shot who? Isn't the BBC even curious? Virtually every media outlet and even Human Rights Watch talk of people being killed in riots without informing us who did the killing - the rioters or the authorities, or both. On May 13th, we have a more specific account:

"Another three people were killed in the north-eastern province of Badakhshan after police opened fire on what reports described as a large group of protesters who were shouting 'Death to America!'."

But on May 13th, police also appeared to number among the casualties as protestors returned the fire:

"Police officers are reported to be among four dead in Ghazni province, 150km south-west of the capital, Kabul, after security forces clashed with protesters. Interior ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal told the BBC that some of the demonstrators involved in the Ghazni protest were armed with AK 47s and handguns. 'They tried to attack the governor's house and office', he said, 'and fired on police and afghan army troops.'"

One of the few categorical, though possibly inaccurate, statements on the matter came breezily in this report from MSNBC News:

The White House blamed the magazine’s account for triggering deadly anti-American protests in Afghanistan last week in which police fired on demonstrators and killed about 15 people. (Emphasis added)

The Afghan police are a part of a security apparatus created by the United States government, other Coalition powers and local Afghan allies of Coalition forces. So Scott McClellan might have said that "People have lost their lives - because our Afghan partners shot them". At the very least, the conduct of Afghan police should be investigated to help develop more humane policing.

The whole epsiode is a case-study of how the American right's propaganda can turn an entire issue upside down with extraordinary effectiveness. So many have so much to be ashamed of. Mike Isikoff, John Barry and Michael Whitaker were among the few who didn't - but they were the only ones to offer an apology.


Inner-City on Fire

[Note to readers - this article was originally written for a US readership. By way of an update, the Parisian authorities have since dealt with the problem of Africans living in unsafe homes by throwing them on to the streets while they try to come up with a solution, resulting in African-style refugee camps in the streets of the French capital]
A string of recent tragedies in Paris may bring to mind episodes from American history among readers - I couldn't tell you if schoolchildren in the USA learn about the New York Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, since the last time I was a part of the US educational system, I was five years old at a kindergarten in the humble Californian town of Chico. So I ask for your patience if I am rehashing an old history lesson...

In the afternoon of March 25th, 1911, passers-by saw what seemed to be an effort by workers of the Triangle Company to throw out bundles of cloth from the windows of the 8th floor - until they realized they were actually witnessing factory girls throwing their own bodies out on to the street below as a fire raged inside. When it was over, 146 workers were dead.

The Triangle workers who had been killed - mostly women, earning $6 dollars a week for their pains - spent their day, like half of all New York's laborers then, above the seventh floor. As fire fighters arrived to put out the blaze they discovered to their horror that the water from their hoses did not reach past the seventh floor. Their ladders only went as far as the sixth or seventh floors too - and the women had to jump from the 8th to grab the tops of the ladders. Some made it, others missed.

The victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Inside the building, there were further disappointments. The 27 emergency buckets of water on the eighth floor were all used to no effect. In violation of the law, the Triangle Company kept its doors locked during the day, and its workers died pressed up against the exits. The doors that did open happened to open inwards rather than outwards - a further illegality - so when desperate workers rushed to the exits and pressed against the doors, they may as well have been locked. For many there was only one way out. In scenes with a modern resonance New Yorkers won't need reminding of, The New York World reported:

"From opposite windows spectators saw again and again pitiable companionships formed in the instant of death - girls who placed their arms around each other as they leaped."

One of the elevator operators tried to take down as many as he could - but the elevator didn't fit many. And as they descended, they could hear the thuds of women above, throwing themselves down the shaft. The coins from the pockets and their blood dripped down on to the lucky few. Police later took 25 bodies from out of the elevator shaft.

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a landmark in US labor history. 100,000 people marched in a memorial parade down Broadway and the sense of anger about what had happened was palpable. It wasn't just an accident - it was an easily avoided tragedy and a scandal that reflected the neglect of New York's workers by the employing class.

Memorial march for the victims of the fire in New York, 1911

In December the factory owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were acquitted of wrongdoing - prompting some of the bereaved to sue them instead. Eventually, 23 of the families received $75 in compensation for the loss of their wives and daughters.

Meanwhile, the New York legislature was jolted into establishing an inquiry into working conditions in the city's sweatshops, prompting a wave of legislation to protect workers' health and the introduction of modern fire-safety standards.

Moving across the Atlantic and almost a century later in Britain. I live in Tottenham, in Haringey, which is in the North-East of London and one of the city's poorest boroughs. The government is currently investing in repairing the area a bit. Some of the old, derelict buildings are being pulled down and replaced by shiny ones. Looking around, it is striking just how many burnt-out shells of buildings there are here, houses, shops and pubs - some destroyed years ago. The blackened shells of stolen cars, no longer needed by their temporary occupants, often accompany them.

The risk of fire affects everyone, but not everyone equally. Nick Davies, in his must read book "Dark Heart - The Shocking Truth about Hidden Britain" (the contents justify the sensational title), describes some of the less well understood consequences of the resurgence of poverty in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s, which continued unchecked until the Labor government began its modest redistributive policies in 1999:

"Poverty sets up accidents - an easy thing to do in homes with no money to pay for fire guards or stair guards or safety rails or window bars ... or where mothers are compelled to light their children's room with candles. In September 1996, the Institute of Child Health disclosed that poor children ... lived in sub-standard houses without smoke detectors and were much more vulnerable to fire. Between 1981 and 1991, death by fire among affluent children dropped by 28 per cent; among poor children, it rose by 39 per cent." (Dark Heart, 1997, pp187-8)

The statistics are accompanied by heart-breaking stories - fires starting when people resorted to heating their houses by ripping up their own floor-boards and using them as fuel, families unable to pay for electricity using candles for lights and losing their children when candles topple over in the night.

With some of this in mind, we can look at what has just happened in Paris. Two separate, devastating fires this year, consuming the lives of African immigrants, had already prompted anger and protest - only for another such fire to break out August 29th (Monday 29th August).

Questions about the living conditions of African immigrants in Paris have long been put to the city's housing authorities by those like Green Party councilor Jean-Francoise Blet, who told the BBC in April this year that: "The Paris municipality has agreed in principle to deal with the problem. But progress is slow."

Too slow for the inhabitants of the Paris-Opera, a one-star, privately owned hotel with 76 guests, most of them put up by social services. A fire broke out in the first floor at 2 o'clock in the morning on April 15th. 24 people were killed, ten of them were children. 50 more were injured.

Read the accounts of the blaze and here is the Triangle Shirtwaist factory all over again. The victims are trapped in the top floors - the central, wooden staircase is the only fire escape and it was on fire. The families in the floors above head for the windows because there is nowhere else to go: "It's hard in that kind of situation to tell people to calm down. They jumped. People on the first floor threw their children out the windows."

Back in April, President Jacques Chirac had words of comfort, describing the disaster as one of the "most painful tragedies" Paris had experienced. Forward to August 26th, another apartment building, another fire, another set of families told they would receive better houses in six months several years previously, another 17 dead and 14 children among them. Again, no fire exit, just a burning staircase and the windows.

Local residents said many of those living in the apartment block were from Senegal and Mali. "I heard children cry, families scream," Oumar Cisse told journalists after he was evacuated from the building. "Some children were yelling for their mothers and fathers. Lots of people wanted to jump out of the windows."

He said the building was "very dirty", and infested with rats and mice. "We were very badly housed, we had been waiting for new homes since 1991," he said.

CNN.com carried an Associated Press report, 'Paris Immigrants Living Dangerously' looking at a building nearby:

From the street, the apartment building where Alaye Ba lives with his wife and four children has typical Parisian charm: a neat white facade, wooden shutters, lace curtains and a ground-floor cafe. Inside is another story. A rickety wooden staircase winds through mildewed corridors that separate small apartments crammed with African families sleeping four, five or more to a room.

I wake up at night sometimes because I'm afraid for my family. This building is not safe," said Ba, a 46-year-old Senegalese immigrant. "If a fire breaks out here, we are prisoners. We will die. ... Even in Africa, we might have been poor, but we didn't live like this," said Ba, who has lived with his family of six in a one-bedroom apartment since 2001.

This time there was an increased urgency in the remarks from the French government. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy describing the sight of asphyxiated children as "an abominable spectacle" - as it must have been - and called for a census into the safety of temporary housing for immigrants in Paris. His statement that change was on the way anticipated protests over the weekend by Africans and human rights activists.

It was too late though, for the seven people (four children) from the Ivory Coast who died in a repeat performance August 29th. The Mayor of Paris' 3rd district, Pierre Aidenbaum, told reporters, "For years, people had been saying the living conditions there were dreadful." Chirac now talks of "strong measures" to replace dangerous housing. The Parisian police are preparing to evacuate the most dangerous buildings.

"For years" - an intolerable situation has been left that way, and too many people didn't really want to know. Only a series of highly visible and gruesome catastrophes has underlined the urgency for change, and for treating immigrants in France with some respect for their human dignity.

The trick we need to learn is how to look out for disasters waiting to happen before they do.
Links to Sources:

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, Paul Rosa

Eyewitness: Paris hotel blaze, BBC Online, April 15th, 2005:

Paris Immigrants Living Dangerously, Associated Press, August 28th, 2005:

Children Die in Paris Hostel Fire, BBC Online, August 26th, 2005:

Squatters Haven Ordered Closed in Paris
, Jocelyn Gecker, AP, August 30th

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