March 25, 2008

Exposure: The woman hehind the camera at Abu Ghraib

Errol Morris talks with Philip Gourevitch about Abu Ghraib, the subject of Morris’s forthcoming film and of a book Gourevitch is writing with him.

The New Yorker, March 24, 08
by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris

All that the soldiers of the 372nd Military Police Company, a Reserve unit out of Cresaptown, Maryland, knew about America’s biggest military prison in Iraq, when they arrived there in early October of 2003, was that it was on the front lines. Its official name was Forward Operating Base Abu Ghraib. Never mind that military doctrine and the Geneva Conventions forbid holding prisoners in a combat zone, and require that they be sped to the rear; you had to make the opposite sort of journey to get to Abu Ghraib. You had to travel along some of the deadliest roads in the country, constantly bombed and frequently ambushed, into the Sunni Triangle. The prison squatted on the desert, a wall of sheer concrete traced with barbed wire, picketed by watchtowers. “Like something from a Mad Max movie,? Sergeant Javal Davis, of the 372nd, said. “Just like that—like, medieval.? There were more than two and a half miles of wall with twenty-four towers, enclosing two hundred and eighty acres of prison ground. And inside, Davis said, “it’s nothing but rubble, blown-up buildings, dogs running all over the place, rabid dogs, burnt remains. The stench was unbearable: urine, feces, body rot.?

The prisoners—several thousand of them, clad in orange—were crowded behind concertina wire. “The encampment they were in when we saw it at first looked like one of those Hitler things, like a concentration camp, almost,? Davis said. “They’re in there, in their little jumpsuits, outside in the mud. Their rest rooms was running over. It was just disgusting. You didn’t want to touch anything. Whatever the worst thing that comes to your mind, that was it—the place you would never, ever, ever, ever send your worst enemy.?

The M.P.s of the 372nd were told to make themselves at home in an abandoned prison block, a compound ravaged by looters and invaded by the desert. The sand lay several inches deep in places, mixed with decomposing trash. Moving in meant digging out and sweeping up, and when you’d purged the debris—weird stuff, some of it; for instance, used syringes, which just made you wonder—what you had were bare prison cells. The military term of art for the place where soldiers sleep and bathe and eat on base is L.S.A., which means “life-support area,? and at other forward operating bases around Iraq an L.S.A. meant climate-controlled tents and a mess hall, electricity and hot water, a gym and an Internet café, phones and satellite television, PX shops and fast-food joints. A proper L.S.A. is an outpost of the motherland, and it affirms the sense of pride and tribe that is essential to morale and discipline. At Abu Ghraib, showers were wooden sheds with cold-water drums propped overhead. The unit had no field kitchen, so chow was combat rations—M.R.E.s, meals-ready-to-eat—breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a cardboard box; everything in a polymer packet.

Nobody had expected luxury at Saddam Hussein’s old prison, but morale was low to begin with—the M.P.s just wanted to know when they were going home—and there was something about living in cells at Abu Ghraib that never felt right. “We had some kind of incinerator at the end of our building,? Specialist Megan Ambuhl said. “It was this huge circular thing. We just didn’t know what was incinerated in there. It could have been people, for all we knew—bodies.? Sergeant Davis was not in doubt. “It had bones in it,? he said, and he called it the crematorium. “But hey, you’re at war,? he said. “Suck it up or drive on.?

The autumn nights were getting cold in the desert, down to forty degrees, which felt colder in a concrete box, where the wind blew in through empty window frames. From some of those windows you could look out over the prison’s perimeter wall into the windows of an apartment complex in the city of Abu Ghraib, a sprawling Baghdad suburb long dominated by Saddam’s Baath Party functionaries, and the people in those apartments could look back at you. As the M.P.s unpacked their kit in their new quarters, they were told that snipers sometimes made use of this arrangement to shoot into the prison. The trick was not to make yourself a target: stay away from the windows, keep your lamps dim and covered—don’t cast a shadow.

On her first night at the prison, Specialist Sabrina Harman, a twenty-six-year-old M.P. from Virginia, wrote a letter home to the woman she called her wife:

Its 9:00 pm and we can hear shots—no white lights are allowed to be on at night no leaving the building after dark. I hope we aren’t here long! We drove in and two helicopters were landed taking prisoners off.
I’m scared of helicopters because of the dream. I think I wrote it down before. I saw a helicopter and it looked like the tail was swaying back and forth then it did it again then a huge flame/round shot up and it exploded. I turned around and we were under attack, I didn’t have my weapon (gun) so all we could do was hide under these picknick tables. So back to the prison . . . we get to our buildings and I step out of my truck right in front of a picknick table.—I almost freaked out. I have a bad feeling about this place. I want to leave as soon as possible! We are still hoping to be home X-mas or soon after.—
I love you.
I’m going to get some sleep.
I’ll write you again soon.
Please don’t give up on me!

Like many young reservists, Harman had joined the Army to help pay for college. She had never imagined that she’d see war, and Iraq often felt unreal to her; “like a dream,? she said. Then she had that dream—about a gunman shooting at a helicopter from a date palm while she hid, unarmed, beneath a picnic table—and it was all too real. “And it kind of came true, maybe two or three weeks later,? she said. “Down the road, they started shooting helicopters from date trees.?

That was in Al Hillah, a Shiite town near the ruins of ancient Babylon, sixty miles south of Baghdad, where the 372nd M.P.s had been stationed since they started arriving in Iraq, in May. Having sat out the Shock and Awe phase of the invasion at Fort Lee, in Virginia, they were sent in through Kuwait shortly after George W. Bush, standing beneath a “Mission Accomplished? banner, declared, in May of 2003, that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended?—and in Al Hillah, during that first summer of the war, they had. The M.P.s felt safe walking the streets; they made friends among the Iraqis, played with the kids, shopped in the markets, shared meals at the outdoor cafés. Their headquarters, in an abandoned date-processing factory, were minimally fortified, and were never attacked. Their mission was to provide combat support for the First Marine Expeditionary Force, which controlled the city, and to train local policemen for duty under a new national government. They understood their presence to be temporary, expecting that America would hand over the country to democratically elected Iraqis by summer’s end, then get out of the way.

To Harman, the assignment felt like a peacekeeping mission, not a tour of combat, and she wasn’t complaining. She was known in the unit as someone who hated to see or do violence. “Sabrina literally would not hurt a fly,? her team leader, Sergeant Hydrue Joyner, said. “If there’s a fly on the floor and you go to step on it, she will stop you.? Specialist Jeremy Sivits, a mechanic in the company’s motor pool, said, “We’d try to kill a cricket, because it kept us up all night in the tent. She would push us out of the way to get to this cricket, and would go running out of the tent with it. She could care less if she got sleep, as long as that cricket was safe.? That made Sivits laugh, but he worried that she wouldn’t survive a firefight. Joyner agreed. “As a soldier, you can’t allow your heart to get in the way sometimes, because the moment you do you may get killed or may get someone else killed,? he said. “But with Sabrina, I think she would have made a better humanitarian than a soldier, and I don’t mean that in a negative way.? Sivits couldn’t figure why she had joined the military. “She was just too nice to be a soldier,? he said.

Harman said that she had wanted to be a cop, like her father and her brother, and her idea was to become a forensic photographer. Pictures had always fascinated her. She made an album of the snapshots people took of her: a diapered toddler in a blue knit cap sitting beside a yellow telephone, her mouth wide open with mirth; a little girl with perfectly combed and bobbed bangs, kneeling in an elaborately frilled dress, white stockings, and white gloves, on a green carpet against a studio backdrop of rampantly blooming cherry trees; a girl riding a pony; a teen-age girl with head shorn to a boyish crop, wearing dungarees and boots and a loose oversized flannel shirt beneath a loose black leather motorcycle jacket; a young woman squinting in a sun-blasted parking lot, wearing full camouflage—helmet, flak jacket, cargo pants—and carrying a riot baton. It was an ordinary album except for one thing: the directness with which she met the camera, eye to eye, looking frankly through the lens as if she were the one taking the picture.

She liked to look. She might recoil from violence, but she was drawn to its aftermath. When others wanted to look away, she’d want to look more closely. Wounded and dead bodies fascinated her. “She would not let you step on an ant,? Sergeant Davis said. “But if it dies she’d want to know how it died.? And taking pictures fascinated her. “Even if somebody is hurt, the first thing I think about is taking photos of that injury,? Harman said. “Of course, I’m going to help them first, but the first reaction is to take a photo.? In July, she wrote to her father, “On June 23 I saw my first dead body I took pictures! The other day I heard my first grenade go off. Fun!? Later, she paid a visit to an Al Hillah morgue and took pictures: mummified bodies, smoked by decay; extreme closeups of their faces, their lifeless hands, the torn flesh and bone of their wounds; a punctured chest, a severed foot. The photographs are ripe with forensic information. Harman also had her picture taken at the morgue, leaning over one of the blackened corpses, her sun-flushed cheek inches from its crusted eye sockets. She is smiling—a forced but lovely smile—and her right hand is raised in a fist, giving the thumbs-up, as she usually did when a camera was pointed at her.

“I kind of picked up the thumbs-up from the kids in Al Hillah,? Harman said. “Whenever I get into a photo, I never know what to do with my hands, so I probably have a thumbs-up because it’s just something that automatically happens. Like when you get into a photo you want to smile.? There are at least twenty photos from Al Hillah in which she is in the identical pose, same smile, same thumbs-up: bathing in an inflatable wading pool; holding a tiny lizard; standing at the foot of a wall that bears a giant bas-relief of Saddam (the button of his suit jacket is bigger than her head); fooling around with her best Army buddy, Megan Ambuhl, who is giving her the finger and flashing a tongue stud; holding a tiny figurine of Jesus; holding a long, phallic melon; mounting the ancient stone lion of Babylon at the ruins of King Nebuchadnezzar’s city; leaning over the shoulder of an M.P. buddy who is holding a Fanta can on top of which sits a dead cat’s head; and so on.

The cat’s head was one of Harman’s gags. She had a kitten that was killed by a dog, and since it had no visible wounds she performed a rough autopsy, discovered organ damage, and then an M.P. buddy mummified its head. They gave it pebbles for eyes, and Sabrina photographed it in various inventive settings: on a bus seat with sunglasses, smoking a cigarette, wearing a tiny camouflage boonie hat, floating on a little pillow in the wading pool, with flowers behind its ears. She took more than ninety photographs and two videos of it. The series, in its weird obsessiveness and dark comedy, has the quality of conceptual art. At one time or another, at least fifteen of Harman’s fellow-M.P.s posed for photos with the cat head; several senior officers and a number of Iraqi men and boys also took the time to have their pictures taken with it. The cat head had become a fetish object, like Huckleberry Finn’s dead cat, which Tom Sawyer admires—a scene that Norman Rockwell illustrated in a folksy print captioned “Lemme see him, Huck. My, he’s pretty stiff!?

Much of Harman’s photo album from Al Hillah looks like a fantasy travel brochure for post-Saddam Iraq: here she is, skin aglow, beaming, amid swarms of joyous Iraqi children—children clambering into her lap, throwing their arms around her, mobbing her in the streets; here she is welcomed into local homes by mustached men in dishdashas bearing tiny cups of tea; here she is visiting the antiquities, with a Bedouin and his camel at the ziggurat of Borsippa, and with fellow-soldiers at the Ishtar gate of Babylon; and here she is in camouflage, with her arm around a pregnant woman swathed in black, her hand on the future-full belly, the woman grinning. Harman bought her Iraqi friends clothes and food and toys. She bought one family a refrigerator, and made sure it was stocked. Sergeant Joyner said, “The Iraqi kids—you couldn’t go anywhere without them saying, ‘Sabrina, Sabrina.’ They just loved themselves some Sabrina. She’ll get these kids balloons, toys, sodas, crackers, cookies, snacks, sweet rolls, Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, Twinkies, she didn’t care. She would do anything she could to make them kids smile.?

Still, the welcome in Al Hillah was brittle. The Americans had not brought what they’d promised: a new order. The war wasn’t over, Iraq had no government, the liberators had become occupiers, and the occupation was slapdash, improvised, and inadequate—at best, a disappointment, and more often an insult. So, in the fever heat, month after month of a hundred and ten and a hundred and twenty degrees, alienation set in. Frustration gave way to hostility, hostility gave way to violence, and by summer’s end the violence against Americans was increasingly organized. It was demoralizing. Every Iraqi might be the enemy. What was the point of being there, unwanted? Nobody from the 372nd was killed in Al Hillah, but on patrols there was shooting, in the night there were explosions, and Sabrina had her nightmare. At least the picnic tables had seemed to her fanciful, the random furniture of dreamscapes—until she got to Abu Ghraib, and there they were.

As the 372nd M.P.s arrived at Abu Ghraib, they learned that two Military Intelligence officers had just been killed there in a mortar attack that had left a dozen other soldiers badly wounded, and it didn’t take long before the M.P.s had their own but-for-this and but-for-that stories of near misses. “A few nights after we got here . . . we were sitting in a meeting and heard 3 thumps then explosion,? Harman wrote to Kelly. A firefight ensued. “Next day,? she wrote, “found out it was an IED (bomb planted in a Coke can wired to a clicker) blew up a vehicle (no one hurt) then they chased down the 3 men that did it and killed them.?

It was said that Abu Ghraib was the most-attacked American base in Iraq at the time. The prison made an obvious target for insurgents: immense and immobile and poorly defended, an outpost of the military occupation in its most despised aspect—holding Iraqis captive. At first, the attacks came at nightfall, around the time that the muezzins’ call to prayer was broadcast from loudspeakers atop nearby minarets. “When the mosque was playing, that was mortar o’clock,? Sabrina Harman said. “In Al Hillah it was kind of soothing and relaxing, and when you get to Abu it was completely different. When they were praying, that’s when you knew you were going to get hit at Abu Ghraib.?

With time, the attacks ceased to adhere to such a tight schedule. Mortars began falling by day, and Harman said, “I was more afraid of walking outside or going to take a shower. I pretty much didn’t. I would use baby wipes. I kind of went infantry for the time I was there, maybe shower once or twice a month if I had to. The showers were outside. They were made of wood, and if a mortar hit, you were going to die. If I could’ve peed inside, I probably would have.? She said, “You had to go to the showers and the bathroom with your flak vest on.? At Abu Ghraib, Javal Davis said, even sleep was no refuge. He hated the thought that he could be killed without knowing it: “I always used to say, ‘God, if I go out, if I have to die, don’t take me in my sleep. I want to feel it.’ ?

The soldiers had a drill to follow during an attack: run, grab your body armor, run, crowd into a shelter, and wait. After a while, hardly anybody bothered. “If you get hit, you get hit. There’s really nothing you could do,? Harman said. “If they got lucky, they hit somebody.? For the most part, the mortars fell on empty ground: nobody was hurt, no property damaged. But the randomness and imprecision of the persistent bombardments heightened the sense that no place was safe.

Of course, the prisoners in the tented camps couldn’t move, and as mortars kept falling on Abu Ghraib, prisoners kept getting killed and maimed. These casualties were promptly recorded in Serious Incident Reports on the military security networks. Then the dead were removed and their remains were sent to a morgue, while the wounded were treated at the prison clinic or, if the damage was severe, evacuated to a hospital before being returned to the camps. The Americans running the prison knew that it was their duty to protect their prisoners, and they knew that at Abu Ghraib that was impossible.

The 372nd M.P.s assumed they had been sent to Abu Ghraib because it was dangerous. They were combat M.P.s, trained to support the operations of front-line forces—to conduct route reconnaissance, escort convoys, run patrols, go on raids. They were abundantly armed and travelled with a fleet of heavy vehicles. “We thought we were going to go kick some behind around the prison and help them out,? Sergeant Davis said. “But that’s not what happened. Once we got there, they told our guys, no, we’re going to be prison guards.?

The new assignment—to run one of the overcrowded tented camps and the indoor prison complex known, on account of its concrete-bunker-like solidity, as the hard site—bewildered the company. Combat units don’t run prisons. That is the province of another cadre of M.P.s, known as internment and resettlement M.P.s, who are trained according to the Army’s extensive doctrine on handling all manner of wartime captives and displaced persons. The 372nd M.P.s had no such specialized experience. A couple of them worked as corrections officers back home, but that gave them no exposure to the Geneva Conventions, and the rest of them didn’t know the first thing about prison work. Their company commander, Captain Donald Reese, was a window-blinds salesman in civilian life.

Although they did not know it at the time, the lack of experience and training in handling prisoners in wartime made the soldiers of the 372nd ideally suited to Abu Ghraib, where almost nothing was run according to military doctrine. Since May, 2003, America’s war in Iraq had been waged as a chapter in the war on terror, and the military’s long-standing rules for running prisons in wartime had largely been ignored. By midsummer, the great majority of prisoners of war who were seized during the invasion had been released. Those who remained in captivity—along with all new prisoners seized by the military—were designated “security detainees,? a label that had gained currency in the war on terror, to describe “unlawful combatants? and other prisoners who had been denied P.O.W. status and could be held indefinitely, in isolation and secrecy, without judicial recourse. The great majority of the prisoners held at Abu Ghraib were designated security detainees, and placed under the authority of Military Intelligence officers, who instructed the M.P.s on how to treat them.

Later, when the photographs of crimes committed against Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were made public, the blame focussed overwhelmingly on the Military Police officers who were assigned to guard duty in the Military Intelligence cellblock—Tiers 1A and 1B—of the hard site. The low-ranking reservist soldiers who took and appeared in the infamous images were singled out for opprobrium and punishment; they were represented, in government reports, in the press, and before courts-martial, as rogues who acted out of depravity. Yet the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was de facto United States policy. The authorization of torture and the decriminalization of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of captives in wartime have been among the defining legacies of the current Administration; and the rules of interrogation that produced the abuses documented on the M.I. block in the fall of 2003 were the direct expression of the hostility toward international law and military doctrine that was found in the White House, the Vice-President’s office, and at the highest levels of the Justice and Defense Departments.

The Abu Ghraib rules, promulgated by Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of ground forces in Iraq, elaborated on the interrogation rules for Guantánamo Bay, which had been issued by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; they were designed to create far more license than restriction for interrogators who sought to break prisoners. The M.P.s at Abu Ghraib were enlisted as enforcers of such practices as sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, sensory disorientation, and the imposition of physical and psychological pain. They never received a standard operating procedure to define what was required and what was allowed, but were repeatedly instructed simply to follow the guidance of Military Intelligence officers. An orthodox standard operating procedure leaves nothing to the imagination, and as Megan Ambuhl settled into her job it occurred to her that the absence of a code was the code at Abu Ghraib. “They couldn’t say that we broke the rules because there were no rules,? she said. And by taking pictures of the prisoners on the M.I. block the M.P.s demonstrated two things: that they never fully accepted what was happening as normal, and that they assumed they had nothing to hide.

By way of orientation, the soldiers of the 372nd who were assigned guard duty at the hard site were given a tour of the place. They saw the ordinary cellblocks for Iraqi criminals and the highly restricted M.I. block, where the most “high value? security detainees were held, during and pending interrogation, in single-occupancy cells. “That’s when I saw the nakedness,? Javal Davis said. “I’m like, ‘Hey, Sarge, why is everyone naked?’ You know—‘Hey, that’s the M.I. That’s what the M.I. does. That’s the M.I. thing. I don’t know.’ ‘Why do these guys have on women’s panties?’ Like—‘It’s to break them.’ ? Davis was wide-eyed. “Guys handcuffed in stress positions, in cells, no lights, no windows. Open the door, turn the light on—‘Oh my God, Allah.’ Click, turn the light off, close the door. It’s like, Whoa, what is that? What the hell is up with all this stuff? Something’s not right here.?

A delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross visited the M.I. block of the hard site between October 9 and 12, 2003, and had much the same reaction that Sergeant Davis had. The Geneva Conventions require that I.C.R.C. delegates be given unrestricted access to military prisons, to monitor conditions and interview prisoners in private. At Abu Ghraib, however, they reported that there were “many obstacles? to their mission, “imposed, apparently, at the behest of Military Intelligence,? and what they were permitted to see and hear did not please them: men held naked in bare, lightless cells, paraded naked down the hallways, verbally and physically threatened, and so forth. The Red Cross was not reassured when M.I. officers explained that these abuses were part of the interrogation process; and the delegates were indignant when they were told that they wouldn’t be allowed to see some prisoners. They broke off their visit, and came back two weeks later to complete their inspection. Based on their two visits, the I.C.R.C. reported that the Military Intelligence operation at Abu Ghraib was plagued by gross and systematic violations of the Geneva Conventions—physical abuses that left prisoners rattled by psychological trauma: “incoherent speech, acute anxiety reactions . . . suicidal ideas.?

On occasion, interrogators told the M.P.s to reward a prisoner—give him a better meal or a pack of cigarettes and let him smoke in his cell—as an incentive for coöperation in interrogation. But mostly what interrogators wanted when they asked for “special treatment? was punishment: take away his mattress, keep him awake, take away his clothes, or “P.T.? him—that is, put him through a “physical training? regimen that might range from squat thrusts and low-crawling naked over concrete to being slapped and knocked around while hooded and made to stand on a cardboard box all night.

The M.P.s on the M.I. cellblock never learned the prisoners’ names. Officially, they referred to their wards by their five-digit prison numbers, but the numbering system was confusing, and the numbers told you nothing about a person, which made them hard to remember. So the soldiers gave the prisoners nicknames based on their looks and their behavior. A prisoner who made a shank and tried to stab someone was Shank, and a prisoner who got hold of a razor blade and cut himself was called Slash. A prisoner who kept spraying himself and his cell with water and was always asking for a broom was Mr. Clean. A prisoner who repeatedly soaked his mattress with water was Swamp Thing.

There was a man they called Smiley, and a man they called Froggy, and a man they called Piggy. There was a man with no fingers on one hand, only a thumb, who was called Thumby—not to be confused with the enormous man called the Claw or Dr. Claw, because one of his hands was frozen in a half-clenched curl. The man they called Santa Claus was also called Snowman. There was the man they called Taxi Driver, because he’d been arrested while driving a cab, and there was a gaunt man they called Gus, but nobody knew why that name had stuck, and he was also sometimes called Mr. Burns, after the scrawny villain on “The Simpsons.?

The nicknames made the prisoners both more familiar and more like cartoon characters, which kept them comfortably unreal when it was time to mete out punishment. Hydrue Joyner took credit for many of the nicknames. “It was jail, but, you know, you can still laugh in jail,? he said. Javal Davis, who had spent six years in the Army, “expecting to learn a career field, get some benefits for college, get a step ahead of my peers, get discipline, become a man,? enjoyed gallows humor as much as the next guy. The problem was that when you spend your nights doing nasty things to people you’ve got to endure them yourself. Davis had violence in him, and he found that making life miserable for men toward whom he had no personal animus could work him into a mounting, generalized rage. But aggression could get you only so far before the depression caught up with it. There were many ways to torment a prisoner according to M.I.’s demands, and for the most part there was nothing funny about them.

“Smells,? Davis said. “Put them in a cell where the toilet is blocked—backed up. It smells like urine and crap. That would drive you nuts.? And you could keep shifting a prisoner’s mealtimes, or simply withhold meals. The prisoners ate the same M.R.E.s that the guards ate, but you could deny them the spoon and all the fixings. “If you got Salisbury steak, they got the Salisbury steak, not the rice that comes with it, not the hot sauce, not the snack, not the juice—the Salisbury steak, and that’s it,? Davis said. “They were starving by the time they’d get ready to get interrogated.? At that point, he said, it would be: “O.K., we’ll give you more food if you talk.?

And you could inflict pain. “You also had stress positions, and you escalated the stress positions,? Davis said. “Hand-cuffs behind their backs, high up, in very uncomfortable positions, or chained down. Then you had the submersion. You put the people in garbage cans, and you’d put ice in it, and water. Or stick them underneath the shower spigot naked. They’d be freezing.? It was a routine, he said: “Open a window while it was, like, forty degrees outside and watch them disappear into themselves . . . before they go into shock.?

Javal Davis had joined the Reserve in 1997, when he was in college. He was impressed by the R.O.T.C. drill he saw: “saluting, about-face—that looked kind of sharp, the rank and file, the order and everything.? He thought it was both an honor and honorable to serve his country, and he was willing to die protecting its freedom. “Especially after 9/11,? he said. He was born and raised in Roselle, New Jersey, across New York Harbor from the World Trade towers; he had won trophies in state championships in the hundred-and-ten-metre high hurdle, and he hoped one day to be a Roselle policeman or a New Jersey state trooper. “And to see that happen on my own soil,? he said. “It turned it up a notch.?

But after four or five nights of running the M.I. block of the Abu Ghraib hard site, Davis said, “I just wanted to go home.? He felt that what he did and saw there was wrong. “But it was reaffirmed and reassured through the leadership: We’re at war. This is Military Intelligence. This is what they do. And it’s just a job,? he said. “So, over time, you become numb to it, and it’s nothing. It just became the norm. You see it—that sucks. It sucks to be him. And that’s it. You move on.?

Sabrina Harman also said she felt herself growing numb at Abu Ghraib, yet she kept being startled by her capacity to feel fresh shocks. “In the beginning,? she said, “you see somebody naked and you see underwear on their head and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty bad—I can’t believe I just saw that.’ And then you go to bed and you come back the next day and you see something worse. Well, it seems like the day before wasn’t so bad.?

Harman was a runner on the night shift at the hard site, filling in where help was needed. “I really don’t remember the first day,? she said. “I remember the first day of working in Tier 1A and 1B. The first thing that I noticed was this guy—he had underwear on his head and he was handcuffed backwards to a window, and they were pretty much asking him questions. And then there was another guy who was fully dressed in another cell they were interrogating also, or I guess they had already interrogated. That’s the first time I started taking photos.? The prisoner with the underwear on his head was the one the M.P.s called Taxi Driver. He was naked, and the position he was in—his hands bound behind his back and raised higher than his shoulders, forcing him to bend forward with his head bowed and his weight suspended from his wrists—is known as a “Palestinian hanging,? because it is said to be used in Israeli prisons. Later that evening, Taxi Driver was moved to a bed, and Harman took another picture of him there. Then she saw another prisoner, lying on his bed fully dressed, and she photographed him, too.

As far as Harman knew at the time, nobody else had taken any pictures on Tier 1A, although later she saw one from a few days earlier of a naked man in the corridor, handcuffed to the bars of a cell door. She wasn’t surprised. By the end of Harman’s first night, three of the M.P.s had taken at least twenty-five photographs, and over the ensuing months the M.P.s on the night shift took hundreds more pictures on the M.I. block. The officer in charge of the block at night, Corporal Charles Graner, said that he made a point of showing his photographs to officers higher up the chain of command, and that nobody objected to what they saw. On the contrary, after a month on the job, and after showing scores of photographs of prisoners in torment to his superiors, Graner received a written assessment from his captain, a frequent visitor to the block, who said, “You are doing a fine job. . . . You have received many accolades from the M.I. units here.?

Most of the photographs from Harman’s first night show solitary naked prisoners in stress positions, cuffed to the bars of their cells or stretched and bent, forward or backward, over a bunk bed, with their hands bound to the far railing. Some of the prisoners are hooded with sandbags, some with underpants. One naked man is lying face down on a concrete floor. Several photographs show a row of prisoners in orange jumpsuits doing pushups in the hallway, and in one Staff Sergeant Ivan (Chip) Frederick—the night-shift officer in charge of the whole hard site—can be made out, in the background. Nobody in these photographs appears to be aware of the camera, and the pictures have the quality of stolen glimpses of men rendered into hellish statuary. Harman said that she began photographing what she saw because she found it hard to believe. “If I come up to you and I’m like, ‘Hey this is going on,’ you probably wouldn’t believe me unless I had something to show you,? she said. “So if I say, ‘Hey this is going on. Look, I have proof,’ you can’t deny it, I guess.? That was the impulse, she said. “Just show what was going on, what was allowed to be done.?

On the same night that she started shooting pictures at the hard site, Harman wrote home:

The days are long here, 12 hour shifts. The prison has been quiet for the past two nights. The night before that another IED went off. No one was killed but it destroyed another Hmvv.
None of our unit has been in the mix of the mortars or IEDs. Not yet. Im afraid to leave the prison to go south to use the phones, they plant those IEDs on the roads and set them off as you pass. The sound is unforgettable. . . .
The prisoners we have range from theft to murder of a US soldier. Until Redcross came we had prisoners the MI put in womens panties trying to get them to talk. Pretty funny but they say it was “cruel.? I don’t think so. No physical harm was done. We’ve even got Sadams sons body guard here. . . . Boy did he fail his job. It sucks working with the prisoners because they all have something wrong. We have people with rashes on their bodies and who-ever is in the cell with them start to get it. . . .
I spoke too soon, its 3am, there’s a firefight outside. Its never going to be calm here! We have guys with TB! That sucks cause we can catch that. Some have STDs. You name it. Its just dirty!
The food sucks. I live off cup o noodles, that’s my meals. The meals they serve are T-REX which is out of a box. If I do come home, boy am I going to eat!

The next night, Harman was back on duty with Charles Graner on the M.I. cellblock, and she wrote again:

October 20, 03—12:29am
The lights went out in the prison so here we were in the dark—in the prison. I have watch of the 18 and younger boys. I hear, misses! Misses! I go downstairs and flash my light on this 16 year old sitting down with his sandal smacking ants. Now these ants are Iraqi ants, LARGE! So large they could carry the family dog away while giving you the finger! LARGE. And this poor boy is being attacked by hundreds. All the ants in the prison came to this one boys cell and decided to take over. All I could do was spray Lysol. The ants laughed at me and kept going. So here we were the boy on one side of the cell and me on the other in the dark with one small flashlight beating ants with our shoes. . . . Poor kids. Those ants even Im scared of.
So that was the start of my shift. They’ve been stripping “the fucked up? prisoners and handcuffing them to the bars. Its pretty sad. I get to laugh at them and throw corn at them. I kind of feel bad for these guys even if they are accused of killing US soldiers. We degrade them but we don’t hit and thats a plus even though Im sure they wish we’d kill them. They sleep one hour then we yell and wake them—make them stay up for one hour, then sleep one hour—then up etc. This goes on for 72 hours while we fuck with them. Most have been so scared they piss on themselves. Its sad. It’s a little worst than Basic training ie: being naked and handcuffed. . . .
But pictures were taken, you have to see them! A sandbag was put over their heads while it was soaked in hot sauce. Okay, that’s bad but these guys have info, we are trying to get them to talk, that’s all, we don’t do this to all prisoners, just the few we have which is about 30-40 not many.
The othernight at 3, when I wrote you, the firefight . . . 3 killed 6 injured—Iraqis. . . .
Its time to wake them again!!!

And later that same day, on her next night shift, Harman wrote:

Oct 20, 03
Okay, I don’t like that anymore. At first it was funny but these people are going too far. I ended your letter last night because it was time to wake the MI prisoners and “mess with them? but it went too far even I can’t handle whats going on. I cant get it out of my head. I walk down stairs after blowing the whistle and beating on the cells with an asp to find “the taxicab driver? handcuffed backwards to his window naked with his underwear over his head and face. He looked like Jesus Christ. At first I had to laugh so I went on and grabbed the camera and took a picture. One of the guys took my asp and started “poking? at his dick. Again I thought, okay that’s funny then it hit me, that’s a form of molestation. You can’t do that. I took more pictures now to “record? what is going on. They started talking to this man and at first he was talking “I’m just a taxicab driver, I did nothing.? He claims he’d never try to hurt US soldiers that he picked up the wrong people. Then he stopped talking. They turned the lights out and slammed the door and left him there while they went down to cell #4. This man had been so fucked that when they grabbed his foot through the cell bars he began screaming and crying. After praying to Allah he moans a constant short Ah, Ah every few seconds for the rest of the night. I don’t know what they did to this guy. The first one remained handcuffed for maybe 1 ½-2 hours until he started yelling for Allah. So they went back in and handcuffed him to the top bunk on either side of the bed while he stood on the side. He was there for a little over an hour when he started yelling again for Allah. Not many people know this shit goes on. The only reason I want to be there is to get the pictures and prove that the US is not what they think. But I don’t know if I can take it mentally. What if that was me in their shoes. These people will be our future terrorist. Kelly, its awful and you know how fucked I am in the head. Both sides of me think its wrong. I thought I could handle anything. I was wrong.

Nobody called Sabrina Harman Mother Teresa at the Abu Ghraib hard site. But even on the Military Intelligence block she retained her reputation as the blithe spirit of the unit, obviously not a leader and yet never a true follower, either—more like a tagalong, the soldier who should never have been a soldier. In her letters from those first nights, as she described her reactions to the prisoners’ degradation and her part in it—ricocheting from childish mockery to casual swagger to sympathy to cruelty to titillation to self-justification to self-doubt to outrage to identification to despair—she managed to subtract herself from the scenes she sketched. By the end of her outpourings, she had repositioned herself as an outsider at Abu Ghraib, an observer and recorder, shaking her head, and in this way she preserved a sense of her own innocence.

Harman said that she had imagined herself producing an exposé—to “prove that the US is not what they think,? as she wrote to Kelly. The idea was abstract, and she had only a vague notion of how to see it through or what its consequences might be. She said she intended to give the photographs to the press after she got home and out of the Army. But she did not pretend to be a whistle-blower-in-waiting; rather, she wished to unburden herself of complicity in conduct that she considered wrong, without ascribing blame or making trouble for anyone in particular. At the outset, when she photographed what was being done to prisoners, she did not include other soldiers in the pictures. In these images, the soldiers, or the order they serve, are the unseen hand in the prisoners’ ordeal. As with crime-scene photographs, which show only victims, we are left to wonder: Who done it?

“I was trying to expose what was being allowed?—that phrase again—“what the military was allowing to happen to other people,? Harman said. In other words, she wanted to expose a policy; and by assuming the role of a documentarian she had found a way to ride out her time at Abu Ghraib without having to regard herself as an instrument of that policy. But it was not merely her choice to be a witness to the dirty work on Tier 1A: it was her role. As a woman, she was not expected to wrestle prisoners into stress positions or otherwise overpower them but, rather, just by her presence, to amplify their sense of powerlessness. She was there as an instrument of humiliation. The M.P.s knew very little about their Iraqi prisoners or the culture they came from, but at Fort Lee, before being deployed, they were given a session of “cultural awareness? training, from which they’d taken away the understanding—constantly reinforced by M.I. handlers—that Arab men were sexual prudes, with a particular hangup about being seen naked in public, especially by women. What better way to break an Arab, then, than to strip him, tie him up, and have a woman laugh at him? Taking pictures may have seemed an added dash of mortification, but to Harman it was a way of deflecting her own humiliation in the transaction, by acting as a spectator.

Her letters to Kelly functioned in the same way. “Maybe writing home was a release, to help me forget about what was happening,? she said. Then, moments later, she said, “I put everything down on paper that I was thinking. And if it weren’t for those letters, I don’t think I could even tell you anything that went on. That’s the only way I can remember things, is letters and photos.? The remarks sound contradictory, but Harman seemed to conceive of memory as an external storage device. By downloading her impressions to a document, she could clear them from her mind and transform reality into an artifact. After all, she said, that was how she experienced the things she did and saw done to prisoners on Tier 1A: “It seems like stuff like this only happened on TV. It’s not something you really thought was going on. At least I didn’t think it was going on. It’s just something that you watch and that is not real.?

Real or unreal, participant or bystander, degrader or degraded, overstimulated or numbed out—Harman may have meant no harm but she seemed to understand that in the malignant circumstances of the M.I. block she could not be entirely harmless. Unable or unwilling to reconcile her most disturbing and her most appealing actions and reactions, she equivocated. When she wrote of “both sides of me,? she said, “It was military and civilian—the tough side and the non-tough side. You battle out which one is more stronger, I guess. . . . You’re trained to be tough. I was right out of basic, and you’re just trained to do what you’re told, and to not let things affect you. You’re supposed to set all emotions aside, because this is war. I think it’s almost impossible. It is emotional.?

Megan Ambuhl, who was Harman’s roommate at Abu Ghraib, regarded her as a little sister, in need of protection. “She is just so naïve, but awesome,? she said. “A good person, but not always aware of the situation.? Harman called Ambuhl “Mommy,? and accepted the verdict of naïveté with equal measures of solace and regret. Harman wanted to be tough and she wanted to be nice, and she said, “I shouldn’t have been there. I mean obviously I didn’t do what I was supposed to. I couldn’t hit somebody. I can’t stomach that ever. I don’t like to watch people get hit. I get sick. I know it’s kind of weird that I can see a dead person, but I don’t like actual violence. I didn’t like taking away their blankets when it was really cold. Because if I’m freezing and I’m wearing a jacket and a hat and gloves, and these people don’t have anything on and no blanket, no mattress, that’s kind of hard to see and do to somebody—even if they are a terrorist.? In fact, she said, “I really didn’t see them as prisoners there. I just saw them as people that were pretty much in the same situation I was, just trapped in Abu Ghraib.? And she said, “I told them that we were prisoners also. So we felt how they were feeling.?

It was easier to be nice to the women and children on Tier 1B, but, Harman said, “It was kind of sad that they even had to be there.? The youngest prisoner on the tier was just ten years old—“a little kid,? she said. “He could have fit through the bars, he was so little.? Like a number of the other kids and of the women there, he was being held as a pawn in the military’s effort to capture or break his father.

Harman enjoyed spending time with the kids. She let them out to run around the tier in a pack, kicking a soccer ball, and she enlisted them to help sweep the tier and distribute meals—special privileges, reserved only for the most favored prisoners on the M.I. block. “They were fun,? she said. “They made the time go by faster.? She didn’t like seeing children in prison “for no reason, just because of who your father was,? but she didn’t dwell on that. What was the point? “You can’t feel because you’ll just go crazy, so you just kind of blow it off,? Harman said. “You can only make their stay a little bit acceptable, I guess. You give them all the candy from the M.R.E.s to make their time go by better. But there’s only so much you can do or so much you can feel.?

On Tier 1A, Harman liked to sneak cigarettes and doses of Tylenol or ibuprofen to prisoners who were being given a hard time. These small gestures gave her comfort, too, and it pleased her that prisoners sometimes turned to her for help. But Harman was generally as forgiving of her buddies as she was of herself. When toughness failed her, and niceness was not an option, Harman took refuge in denial. “That’s the only way to get through each day, is to start blocking things out,? she said. “Just forget what happened. You go to bed, and then you have the next day to worry about. It’s another day closer to home. Then that day’s over, and you just block that one out.? At the same time, she faulted herself for not being a more enthusiastic soldier when prisoners on Tier 1A were being given the business. When she was asked how other M.P.s could go at it without apparent inhibition, all she could say was “They’re more patriotic.?

One night in the first week of November, 2003, an agent of the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division—an agency sometimes described as the military’s F.B.I.—came to the M.I. block to interrogate a new prisoner, an Iraqi suspected of involvement in the deaths of American soldiers. The story, as the M.P.s understood it, was that the prisoner kept giving a false name and insisting that he was not who the C.I.D. said he was. He was given the nickname Gilligan and subjected to the standard treatment: the yelling, the P.T., the sleep deprivation. Graner, who took charge of Gilligan’s harassment, gave him a cardboard box—an M.R.E. carton—which he was ordered to carry around or to stand on for long stretches. Gilligan was hooded, and normally he would have been naked, too, but, because of the cold, Graner had cut a hole in a prison blanket and draped it over him like a poncho. Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick later told Army investigators that he asked the C.I.D. man—whom he identified as Agent Romero—about Gilligan, and that Romero said, “I don’t give a fuck what you do to him, just don’t kill them.?

Frederick said that he took Romero’s words “like an order, but not a specific order,? and he explained, “To me, Agent Romero was like an authority figure, and when he said he needed the detainee stressed out I wanted to make sure the detainee was stressed out.? Frederick found Gilligan where Graner had left him, perched on his box in the shower room of Tier 1A. “There were a lot of detainees that were forced to stand on boxes,? he said. Behind Gilligan, he noticed some loose electrical wires hanging from the wall. “I grabbed them and touched them together to make sure they weren’t live wires,? he said. “When I did that and got nothing, I tied a loop knot on the end, put it on, I believe, his index finger, and left it there.? Frederick said that somebody then tied a wire to Gilligan’s other hand and Harman said, “I told him not to fall off, that he would be electrocuted if he did.?

Harman had been busy for much of the night, keeping awake the prisoner they called the Claw, and attending to another one they called Shitboy, a maniac on Tier 1B who had the habit of smearing himself with his feces and hurling it at passing guards. She was taking a break when she joined the others in the shower room, and although Gilligan understood English, she wasn’t sure if he believed her threat. Besides, the whole mock-electrocution business had not lasted more than ten or fifteen minutes—just long enough for a photo session. “I knew he wouldn’t be electrocuted,? she said. “So it really didn’t bother me. I mean, it was just words. There was really no action in it. It would have been meaner if there really was electricity coming out, and he really could be electrocuted. No physical harm was ever done to him.? In fact, she said, “He was laughing at us towards the end of the night, maybe because he knew we couldn’t break him.?

Once the wires were attached to Gilligan, Frederick had stepped back, instructed Gilligan to hold his arms out straight from his sides, like wings, and taken a picture. Then he took another, identical to the first: the hooded man, in his blanket poncho, barefoot atop his box, arms outstretched, wires trailing from his fingers. Snap, snap—two seconds—and three minutes later Harman took a similar shot, but from a few steps back, so that Frederick appears in the foreground at the edge of the frame, studying on the display screen of his camera the picture he’s just taken.

These were not the first photographs taken on the block that night, or the last. That afternoon, when the night shift M.P.s reported for duty at the hard site, their platoon commander had called them to a meeting. “He said there was a prisoner who had died in the shower, and he died of a heart attack,? Harman said. The body had been left in the shower on Tier 1B, packed in ice, and shortly after the session with Gilligan somebody noticed water trickling out from under the shower door.

As Harman entered the shower room, she snapped a picture of a black rubber body bag lying along the far wall. Then she and Graner, their hands sheathed in turquoise latex surgical gloves, unzipped the bag. “We just checked him out and took photos of him—kind of realized right away that there was no way he died of a heart attack because of all the cuts and blood coming out of his nose,? she said, and she added, “You don’t think your commander’s going to lie to you about something. It made my trust go down, that’s for sure. Well, you can’t trust your commander now.?

Translucent plastic ice bags covered the dead prisoner from the neck down, but his battered, bandaged face was exposed—mouth agape as if in mid-speech. Harman, the aspiring forensic photographer, shot him from a variety of angles, zooming in and out, while Charles Graner swabbed the floor. When he was done, he took a photograph of Harman posing with the corpse, bending low into the frame, flashing her Kodak smile, and giving the thumbs-up with one gloved hand; and she used his camera to take a similar shot of him. After about seven minutes in the shower room, she zipped the body bag shut, and they left.

“I guess we weren’t really thinking, Hey, this guy has family, or, Hey, this guy was just murdered,? Harman said. “It was just—Hey, it’s a dead guy, it’d be cool to get a photo next to a dead person. I know it looks bad. I mean, even when I look at them, I go, ‘Oh Jesus, that does look pretty bad.’ But when we were in that situation it wasn’t as bad as it looks coming out on the media, I guess, because people have photos of all kinds of things. Like, if a soldier sees somebody dead, normally they’ll take photos of it.?

Harman might more accurately have said that it’s not unusual to take such pictures. Soldiers have always swapped crazy war stories—whether to boast or confess, to moralize or titillate—and the uncritical response of other soldiers at Abu Ghraib to the photographs from the night shift on the M.I. block suggests that they were seen as belonging to this comradely tradition. Javal Davis took no photographs there and he appeared in none, but he said, “Everyone in theatre had a digital camera. Everyone was taking pictures of everything, from detainees to death.? He said, “That was nothing, like in Vietnam where guys were taking pictures of the dead guy with a cigarette in his mouth. Like, Hey, Mom, look. It sounds sick, but over there that was commonplace, it was nothing. I mean, when you’re surrounded by death and carnage and violence twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, it absorbs you. You walk down the street and you see a dead body on the road, whereas a couple months ago, you would have been like, ‘Oh, my God, a dead body,’ today you’re like, ‘Damn, he got messed up, let’s go get something to eat.’ You could watch someone running down the street burning on fire, as long as it’s not an American soldier, it’s ‘Somebody needs to go put that guy out.’ ?

The pictures of Harman and Graner with the corpse may have been taken as a gag—“for personal use,? as Frederick said of his photos of Gilligan—but they are starkly at odds with Harman’s claim of a larger documentary purpose. By contrast, her grisly, intimate portraits of the corpse convey her shock at discovering its wreckage; and later that evening Harman returned to the shower with Frederick to examine the body more carefully. This time, she looked beneath the ice bags and peeled back the bandages, and she stayed out of the pictures.

“I just started taking photos of everything I saw that was wrong, every little bruise and cut,? Harman said. “His knees were bruised, his thighs were bruised by his genitals. He had restraint marks on his wrists. You had to look close. I mean, they did a really good job cleaning him up.? She said, “The gauze on his eye was put there after he died to make it look like he had medical treatment, because he didn’t when he came into the prison.? She said, “There were so many things around the bandage, like the blood coming out of his nose and his ears. And his tooth was chipped—I didn’t know if that happened there or before—his lip was split open, and it looked like somebody had either butt-stocked him or really got him good or hit him against the wall. It was a pretty good-sized gash. I took a photo of that as well.? She said, “I just wanted to document everything I saw. That was the reason I took photos.? She said, “It was to prove to pretty much anybody who looked at this guy, Hey, I was just lied to. This guy did not die of a heart attack. Look at all these other existing injuries that they tried to cover up.?

The next morning, after nearly thirty hours in the shower, the corpse was removed from the tier disguised as a sick prisoner: draped with a blanket, taped to an I.V., and rolled away on a gurney. Hydrue Joyner was reminded of the Hollywood farce “Weekend at Bernie’s,? in which two corporate climbers treat their murdered boss as a puppet, pretending he’s alive to avoid suspicion in his death. “I was thinking to myself, Un-freaking-believable. But this came from on high,? Joyner said of the charade with the I.V. “I took it as they didn’t want any of the prisoners thinking we were in there killing folks.? Joyner referred to the dead man as Bernie, but Army investigators soon identified him as a suspected insurgent named Manadel al-Jamadi. He was alleged to have provided explosives for the bombing that blew up the Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad a week before his arrest, and he had died while under interrogation by a C.I.A. agent. Within the week that followed, an autopsy concluded that Jamadi had succumbed to “blunt force injuries? and “compromised respiration?; and his death was classified as a homicide.

Jamadi’s C.I.A. interrogator has never been charged with a crime. But Sabrina Harman was. As a result of the pictures she took and appeared in at Abu Ghraib, she was convicted by court-martial, in May of 2005, of conspiracy to maltreat prisoners, dereliction of duty, and maltreatment, and sentenced to six months in prison, a reduction in rank, and a bad-conduct discharge. Megan Ambuhl, Javal Davis, Chip Frederick, Charles Graner, and Jeremy Sivits were among the handful of other soldiers who, on account of the photographs, were also sentenced to punishments ranging from a reduction in rank and a loss of pay to ten years in prison. The only person ranked above staff sergeant to face a court-martial was cleared of criminal wrongdoing. No one has ever been charged for abuses at the prison that were not photographed. Originally, Harman’s charges included several counts pertaining to her pictures of Jamadi, but these were never brought to trial. The pictures constituted the first public evidence that the man had been killed during an interrogation at Abu Ghraib, and Harman said, “They tried to charge me with destruction of government property, which I don’t understand. And then maltreatment for taking the photos of a dead guy. But he’s dead. I don’t know how that’s maltreatment. And then altering evidence for removing the bandage from his eye to take a photo of it and then I placed it back. When he died, they cleaned him all up and then stuck the bandages on. So it’s not really altering evidence. They had already done that for me. But in order to make the charges stick they were going to have to bring in the photos, which they didn’t want, because obviously they covered up a murder and that would just make them look bad. So they dropped all the charges pertaining to the guy in the shower.?

As for Gilligan, the Criminal Investigation Department determined that he was not, after all, who he had been suspected of being during his ordeal. “So all of that, and the poor guy was innocent,? Harman said. He remained on Tier 1A and soon became one of the M.P.s’ favorite prisoners. Gilligan was given the privileged status of a block worker, and was regularly let out of his cell to help with the cleaning. Megan Ambuhl called him “pretty decent,? and said she had a picture of him sharing a meal and a smoke with Charles Graner. Sabrina Harman said, “He was just a funny, funny guy. If you’re going to take someone home, I definitely would have taken him.?

Under the circumstances, Harman was baffled that the figure of Gilligan—hooded, caped, and wired on his box—had eventually become the icon of Abu Ghraib and possibly the most recognized emblem of the war on terror after the World Trade towers. The image had proliferated around the globe in uncountable reproductions and representations—in the press, but also on murals and placards, T-shirts and billboards, on mosque walls and in art galleries. Harman had even acquired a Gilligan tattoo on one arm, but she considered that a private souvenir. It was the public’s fascination with the photograph of Gilligan—of all the images from Abu Ghraib—that she couldn’t fathom. “There’s so many worse photos out there. I mean, nothing negative happened to him, really,? she said. “I think they thought he was being tortured, which he wasn’t.?

Harman was right: there were worse pictures than Gilligan. But, leaving aside that photographs of death and nudity, however newsworthy, don’t get much play in the press, the power of an image does not necessarily lie in what it depicts. A photograph of a mangled cadaver, or of a naked man trussed in torment, can shock and outrage, provoke protest and investigation, but it leaves little to the imagination. It may be rich in practical information, while being devoid of any broader meaning. To the extent that it represents any circumstances or conditions beyond itself, it does so generically. Such photographs are repellent, in large part because they have a terrible, reductive sameness. Except from a forensic point of view, they are unambiguous, and have the quality of pornography. They are what they show, nothing more. They communicate no vision and, shorn of context, they offer little, if anything, to think about, no occasion for wonder. They have no value as symbols.

Of course, the dominant symbol of Western civilization is the figure of a nearly naked man, tortured to death—or, more simply, the torture implement itself, the cross. But our pictures of the savage death of Jesus are the product of religious imagination and idealization. In reality, he must have been ghastly to behold. Had there been cameras at Calvary, would twenty centuries of believers have been moved to hang photographs of the scene on their altarpieces and in their homes?

The image of Gilligan achieves its power from the fact that it does not show the human form laid bare and reduced to raw matter but creates instead an original image of inhumanity that admits no immediately self-evident reading. Its fascination resides, in large part, in its mystery and inscrutability—in all that is concealed by all that it reveals. It is an image of carnival weirdness: this upright body shrouded from head to foot; those wires; that pose; and the peaked hood that carries so many vague and ghoulish associations. The pose is obviously contrived and theatrical, a deliberate invention that appears to belong to some dark ritual, a primal scene of martyrdom. The picture transfixes us because it looks like the truth, but, looking at it, we can only imagine what that truth is: torture, execution, a scene staged for the camera? So we seize on the figure of Gilligan as a symbol that stands for all that we know was wrong at Abu Ghraib and all that we cannot—or do not want to—understand about how it came to this. ♦

March 17, 2008

When Girls Will Be Boys

New York Times
March 16, 2008
When Girls Will Be Boys

It was late on a rainy fall day, and a college freshman named Rey was showing me the new tattoo on his arm. It commemorated his 500-mile hike through Europe the previous summer, which happened also to be, he said, the last time he was happy. We sat together for a while in his room talking, his tattoo of a piece with his spiky brown hair, oversize tribal earrings and very baggy jeans. He showed me a photo of himself and his girlfriend kissing, pointed out his small drum kit, a bass guitar that lay next to his rumpled clothes and towels and empty bottles of green tea, one full of dried flowers, and the ink self-portraits and drawings of nudes that he had tacked to the walls. Thick jasmine incense competed with his cigarette smoke. He changed the music on his laptop with the melancholy, slightly startled air of a college boy on his own for the first time.

Rey’s story, though, had some unusual dimensions. The elite college he began attending last year in New York City, with its academically competitive, fresh-faced students, happened to be a women’s school, Barnard. That’s because when Rey first entered the freshman class, he was a woman.

Rey, who asked that neither his last name nor his given name be used to protect his and his family’s privacy, grew up in Chappaqua, the affluent Westchester suburb that is home to the Clintons, and had a relatively ordinary, middle-class Jewish childhood. Rey, as he now calls himself, loved his younger brother, his parents were together and he was a good student, excelling in English and history. But he always had the distinct feeling that he wasn’t the sex he was supposed to be. As a kid, he was often mistaken for a boy, which was “mostly cool,? Rey said. “When I was 5, I told my parents not to correct people when strangers thought I was a boy. I was never a girl, really — I questioned my own gender, and other people also questioned my gender for me.? When Rey entered puberty, he felt the loss of the “tomboy? sobriquet acutely.

“My body changed in freshman year of high school, and it made me depressed,? Rey said. That year, he started to wonder whether he was really meant to become a woman. His friends in high school were almost all skater boys and musicians, and he related to them as if he were one of them. He began to define himself as “omnisexual,? although he was mostly attracted to women.

The idea that he might actually want to transition from female to male began to take shape for Rey when he was 14 or 15; he can’t quite remember when exactly. “A transmale speaker guy? gave a talk at a meeting of his high school’s Gay Straight Alliance, and Rey was inspired. Then he took a typical step for someone going to high school in the first years of this century. He went home and typed “transgender? into Google.

At the end of his freshman year in high school, he met Melissa, a student at Smith College who was back in Westchester for summer break and later became his girlfriend. During one of their days together, Melissa, who was immersed in campus gender activism, mentioned the concept of being a “transman? and spoke of her transmale friends. Rey confided his questions about his gender identity to her, and she encouraged him to explore them further. For most of high school, Rey spent hours online reading about transgendered people and their lives. “The Internet is the best thing for trans people,? he said. “Living in the suburbs, online groups were an access point.? He also started reading memoirs of transgendered people. He asked Melissa to explain the gender theory she was learning in college.

In his senior year, he took on the name Rey. At 17, he finally felt ready to come out as trans to his family, who according to Rey struggled to understand his new identity. Around that time, he also visited a clinic in Manhattan, hoping to start hormone therapy. He was told that unless he wanted his parents involved in the process, he’d have to wait until he was 18. In the meantime, Rey began to apply to colleges. He wanted to go to “a hippie school,? as he put it, yet he felt pressure to choose a school like Barnard that hewed to an Ivy League profile. Though he decided on Barnard, he still planned to start on testosterone as soon as he turned 18. When I asked him why he wanted to start hormone therapy so soon, he replied simply, “You live your life and you feel like a boy.? Of course, living life like a boy is not what an elite women’s college has historically been about.

At 18, Rey is part of a growing population of transgender students at the nation’s colleges and universities. While still a rarity, young women who become men in college, also known as transmen or transmales, have grown in number over the last 10 years. According to Brett-Genny Janiczek Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who has studied trans students on college campuses, adults who wished to transition historically did so in middle age. Today a larger percentage of transitions occur in adolescence or young adulthood. The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that between a quarter of a percent and 1 percent of the U.S. population is transgender — up to three million Americans — though other estimates are lower and precise figures are difficult to come by. Still, the growing number of young people who transition when they are teenagers or very young adults has placed a new pressure on colleges, especially women’s colleges, to accommodate them.

The number of young people who openly identify as transgendered has grown for a few reasons. Some parents of young children who are “gender nonconforming? — usually children who identify psychologically with the opposite sex but also children who have hermaphroditic traits, like indeterminate sex organs — now allow their kids to choose whether they are referred to as “he? or “she? and whether to wear boys’ or girls’ clothing. And some of these parents, under a doctor’s supervision, have even begun to administer hormone blockers to prevent the arrival of secondary sex characteristics until a “gender variant? child is old enough to make permanent choices. The Internet also offers greater access to information about transmale and gender-variant identities.

In addition, 147 colleges and universities nationwide now include “gender identity and expression? in their nondiscrimination policies, and students will often use gender-neutral pronouns like “ze? and “hir? — especially if they post on campus message boards. At Wesleyan last year, students initiated a survey of bathrooms, checking to see if they were transgender-friendly — open to all sexes. Many colleges now have Transgender Days of Remembrance in memory of victims of gender-identity-related hate crimes. Students at the University of Vermont hold a yearly “Translating Identity Conference? for trans college students that draws hundreds of people from around the country. The increasing number of trans college students has even given rise to a surprisingly deft reality television show, “Transgeneration,? on the Sundance Channel, which featured a transmale student at Smith College.

The conventional thinking is that trans people feel they are “born in the wrong body.? But today many students who identify as trans are seeking not simply to change their sex but to create an identity outside or between established genders — they may refuse to use any gender pronouns whatsoever or take a gender-neutral name but never modify their bodies chemically or surgically. These students are also considered part of the trans community, though they are known as either gender nonconforming or genderqueer rather than transmen or transmale.

At many of America’s first-tier women’s colleges, the growth of the trans community has led to campus workshops on transgender identity. According to students at Smith, a good number of restrooms have been made over as “gender neutral.? And some professors make sure to ask students to fill out slips indicating their preferred names and pronouns. Students at several women’s colleges have also created trans groups to reflect their experiences and political views. According to one transmale student I talked to at Wellesley, there are at least 15 gender-nonconforming students at the college, ranging from full-on trans to genderqueer, who have formed their own group. Other women’s colleges, like Smith, have in the last few years had on-campus gender-nonconforming groups with up to 30 members, more than 1 percent of that school’s population.

Which doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes a struggle to be trans or gender-nonconforming on campus. Many trans students feel themselves to be excluded or isolated at women’s schools and at coed colleges. Some talk of being razzed or insulted by fellow students. And even within a college’s gender-nonconforming population, students are often divided among those who define themselves as men but don’t transition medically, those who do and those who prefer not to define themselves as either male or female.

These difficulties are a natural part of being a minority that is still fighting for acceptance. But trans students’ problems can also be institutional. The presence of trans students at women’s colleges can’t help raising the question of whether — or to what degree — these colleges can serve students who no longer see themselves as women.

From his first week at Barnard, Rey told me, he felt he was struggling. The women on campus seemed to Rey to be socially conservative and archly feminine, and he felt he had to seek solace elsewhere. At the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in downtown Manhattan — the medical facility for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people that he visited while he was still in high school — he began to get biweekly testosterone “T? shots (he turned 18 in September). Rey had psychological counseling elsewhere first; typically a letter of referral from a mental-health professional is required before anyone between 18 and 24 can receive hormone therapy. Rey also began to bind his breasts. But binding hurt, he said; it made it hard for him to breathe. He especially hated “having to alter your body every morning so you can go through the world and people will accept you.?

But as a transmale student in a sea of women at Barnard, he felt alone. He longed to be with his girlfriend, Melissa, and with transmale friends, some of whom, like Rey, were attending women’s colleges. Even as he sought to adopt a more conventionally male appearance, he wanted to maintain his ties with his former self. “I am all for not rubbing out my past as female,? he told me.

But it was not to be that simple. As a transmale college student, he was something of a pioneer. And he began to hit some walls.

In the first week of September, he found out that his roommates had complained to the college’s freshman housing director about being asked to share their rooms with a man. They wanted Rey to find somewhere else to live. According to Dorothy Denburg, the dean who spoke to Rey about the situation, these young women were disturbed when Rey told them on the first day “that he was a transboy and wanted to be referred to by male pronouns.? Rey’s roommates had, after all, chosen to attend a women’s college in order to live and be educated in the company of other women. Barnard doesn’t have singles for freshmen. As Rey saw it, he was simply shut out by his two roommates — and by the rest of the school. A week after learning of his roommates’ disapproval, Rey, together with the dean and his parents, decided that Rey should transfer to Columbia’s School of General Studies.

Rey felt lost. He slept on people’s couches and stayed with one friend, a Columbia student and fellow trans activist, for a week. The story of his rooming travails ultimately wound up on the gossip pages of The New York Post. The Post squib cast Rey as an infiltrator in one of the last girls-with-pearls bastions.

“They were very typical feminine girls,? explained Rey. “I didn’t fit in. It’s why I didn’t hang out with straight girls for most of high school — I hung out with queer women. Around the Barnard women, I felt extremely other.?

Rey described the days that followed as “the worst semester ever.? As his new hormone regime began to take effect, he started to go through male puberty, which meant increased bone mass and a deepening voice and facial hair. He struggled to lead the normal life of an arty college student: eating vegan, going to clubs, keeping his grades up. Only recently, Rey says, has his life brightened. Indeed the transformation from the person he was to who he has become is startling. The second time we met, on a street corner near Columbia in Upper Manhattan, was a cold but sunny day in January, and Rey was aglow, smiling and laughing. Accompanied by his girlfriend, Melissa, now a graceful college senior, he greeted me with a hug.

The reason for this cheer, he said, was that he finally felt on the way to becoming who he really is. The testosterone shots he had received every other week since October had lowered his voice a few octaves. He was in the process of legally changing his name to a male name, although he couldn’t decide whether to go casual (Rey) or Old Testament (Asher). And in December Rey underwent what he called “chest reconstruction surgery,? also known as “top surgery,? which he paid for out of pocket.

Melissa helped Rey through it, feeding him antibiotics and massaging his postsurgery chest with arnica cream. He joined a campus trans organization, GendeRevolution. In a few short months, he had become a full-blown activist. He quit smoking. To cap it off, he was bar-mitzvahed in Israel in January. He’d had his bat mitzvah at 13, but as Rey put it, he didn’t feel “connected to the experience.? He was bar-mitzvahed without his parents in attendance, but he took the rite of passage to heart. After all, at 13 he’d become a woman. Now, at 18, he was a man.

Despite the seriousness of the issues Rey has dealt with, all in such a short time, he often seemed like a giddy teenager, probably because he still was one. Clad in his usual uniform of baggy pants and a B-Boy cap covered with images of euros, he gossiped about his friends, music, sex and food, from time to time throwing his arm around Melissa, who is pixielike, slim and Rey’s height — a little over five feet. She was wearing skinny jeans and ballet flats. She was so supportive of Rey’s transformation that she was taken aback when I asked if his period of postoperative recovery had been hard for her.

“He’s so much happier now,? she said. Even though Melissa always defined herself as a lesbian, she said her partner’s transition made sense to her. Part of the couple’s sangfroid is generational — she and Rey see themselves as genderqueer rather than gay. For them, sexual orientation is fluid. Like some of their peers, Melissa and Rey want to be — and sometimes imagine they already are — part of the first generation to transcend gender.

On the face of it, it’s not surprising that students like Rey would choose to attend a women’s college. Same-sex colleges have always been test beds for transformations among American women. Set up as places where women could flourish without men, colleges like Barnard, Wellesley, Smith and Mount Holyoke have always had dual personalities, serving both as finishing schools and as incubators of American feminism. Smith College’s alumnae include not only Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan but also Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Catharine MacKinnon.

The schools that decided to remain single-sex in the 1970s, when many colleges around the country went coed, represented a significant and even controversial challenge to liberal ideas about gender equality. And in refashioning their identities for the time, many became loci for the interrogation of gender roles. It was, after all, at all-female schools that many young women first began to question the very notion of femininity. And this questioning found echoes in the curriculum. Scholars like Esther Newton, Gayle Rubin, Anne Fausto-Sterling and Judith Butler ushered in an era that reconceived gender as a social construct, distinct from both a person’s sex and sexuality. For Butler and others, femaleness did not automatically produce femininity and maleness did not produce masculinity: gender was fluid and variable, something to be fashioned, and could shift in character depending on the culture or the time period. As some see it, the presence of trans students at single-sex colleges is simply a logical extension of this intellectual tradition.

Indeed, as one transmale student I spoke to at Wellesley pointed out, women’s colleges are uniquely suited to transgender students. “There’s no safer place for transmen to be than a women’s college because there’s no actual physical threat to us,? he told me, adding, “I have more in common with women because of that shared experience than I do with men.? And even though Rey chose to leave Barnard for a coed school, he also says that women’s schools can — and should — act as havens for transmale students, that they are, in fact, natural beacons for trans people, because “feminists and trans activists are both interested in gender.?

In a sense, transgender and genderqueer students could be said merely to be holding women’s colleges to their word: to fully support women’s exploration of gender, even if that exploration ends with students no longer being female-identified. As Judith Halberstam, a professor of English and gender studies at the University of Southern California and the author of “Female Masculinity,? put it, feminist theory offers students a way to think about gender as performance, to create a trans self or a genderqueer one — and give that self contours, definition — in a way that was simply unavailable 30 years ago. Indeed, Rey discovered his own trans identity reading queer theory, and even transitioning to be a man hasn’t changed his core sense of himself. “I’m still queer even though I am a man now — it’s the beauty of the term,? Rey said.

“I think gender is a spectrum — gender is more complicated than sex,? Rey continued. He sees everyone, and not just transmen, as having “their own gender,? just as they might have their own personality or temperament. Rey’s point isn’t merely academic. A good number of gender nonconforming students I spoke to at women’s colleges agreed with him. Most did not have operations but rather defined gender simply by how they experienced it, seeing themselves as existing on a “gender continuum? with their more conventionally feminine college friends. I met with one such student, Jordan Akerley, a 22-year-old senior at Wellesley. As we sat in the student-run on-campus cafe where Akerley works, Akerely explained what it is like to live out a theory of identity that doesn’t exactly conform to one gender or the other.

“I find pronouns cumbersome and self-limiting,? Akerley told me, which is why friends use the name Jordan, a name that Akerley says she intends to make official this year. Akerley, a co-captain of the school’s soccer team, takes no hormones and has no plans to have an operation. Akerley’s look and entire manner is quite unremarkable, even conservative: hair combed in a modified Tin Tin do, sporty, plain cotton shirt, jeans and sneakers. The only sign of an “alternative? or outsider identity — other than appearing masculine enough to be frequently mistaken on campus for a female student’s boyfriend — is Akerley’s eyebrow ring. Akerley’s affect could be that of an aspiring politician: amiable, physically attractive, clean cut, inoffensive and articulate.

“My identity is fluid; it may evolve and fluctuate,? Akerley explained. “My preference is not to use gender pronouns. My work is not always grammatically correct because of the lack of pronouns.?

Though women’s colleges may seem a haven for trans or gender-nonconforming students, accommodating such students requires balancing a complex set of needs and expectations — inside and outside the college. Barnard, like many women’s colleges, has an admissions policy of accepting only “legal? women. The college’s president, Judith Shapiro, who wrote an article on transsexualism in the 1980s, is clearly sympathetic to the trans population in general, but when I spoke to her she wondered aloud why a transmale or male-identified student “would want to be in a woman’s college.? She went on to explain her position this way: “Having been very involved in second-wave feminism, I am interested in gender revolutionaries, but I still think gender is a major category in our society.? In many ways, Shapiro could be said to represent the position women’s colleges now find themselves in: caught between wanting to embrace a campus minority that their own interrogation of gender roles has helped to shape and defending the value of institutions centered on the distinct experience of being female.

Colleges must also navigate the attitudes and expectations of their alumnae. While some alumnae have readily accepted the presence of trans students on their campuses, others, like Suzanne Corriell and Regis Ahern, graduates of Mount Holyoke, see it as a betrayal of the foundational principles of their alma mater. Corriell and Ahern recently wrote an angry letter to The Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly, charging that admitting transmale students was, in effect, a way of “passively going coed? and that the “lifestyle choices? of these students was a bald negation of a women’s college charter. Trans students, they wrote, were simply “men seeking to take advantage of Mount Holyoke’s liberal and accepting atmosphere.?

When I called Corriell, who is 28, at the law library at the University of Richmond, where she works, she explained her feelings to me this way: “I am a strong believer in women’s education, and I think the colleges are a dying breed that need protection. I respect their agenda, which is educating women.? She paused, then said: “Educating trans students in a same-sex residential community produces difficulty — when a student no longer identifies as a woman, the privilege to attend these schools is lost. Men have lots of schools they can go to — why must transmen go to women’s schools??

Of course, many trans students identify first as women — as lesbians or feminist activists. They are attracted to women’s schools precisely because of their reputation as safe harbors for exploring these identities. As a result, many transmale students apply to women’s schools and attend them before they have fully come out as “gender nonconforming? — and this is likely to be the case for years to come.

Denburg, the Barnard dean, acknowledges that women’s colleges have always been places “where women can explore definitions and dimensions of gender.? But it is only in the last five years of her tenure as dean, she says, that she has encountered transmale students. She had, she said, no objection to Rey’s attending Barnard. The school has helped other gender-nonconforming students, among them a resident adviser in his senior year, who had to inform his female dorm mates about his gender transition over the summer. Denburg described her work with these students “as an educational journey for me as well, that has helped me to better understand the drive of someone who feels they are in the wrong body.?

That said, Barnard does not have the kind of groups for trans students or awareness campaigns and gender-neutral bathrooms that some of the other women’s colleges do. And it has not been as affiliated with women’s and gender activism as some of its sister schools. Rey’s case, as Denburg put it, “caught us off guard,? mostly because administrators had never encountered a student who wanted to transition physically at such a young age. To Denburg, 18 still seems very young for such a decision.

Many people would agree that going on hormones carries risks: there are few studies on the long-term effects of hormone therapies on transmen. Some transmen in their 20s and 30s have told me they worry about the hormones’ potential side effects — an increase in “bad? cholesterol and the risk of heart disease and stroke. For transmen, finding appropriate health care is complicated by the fact that student health services typically need to refer such students to outside clinics or hospitals for their care — and transmen may need additional insurance or be required to bear at least some of the medical costs themselves.

Rey always expected to go off-campus for his transition. He wound up being operated on by a private surgeon in New York City. (He received no “bottom surgery,? as it is known — few transmen do, in part because the operation is thought to be too rudimentary and in part because many transmen view it as unnecessary.) While many gender-nonconforming students don’t have “top surgery? in their freshman years, they may still struggle with their colleges’ medical services, not because they want specialized treatments but because they want health care that is sensitive to their new identities. As one gender-noncomforming student complained to me, he hated that health services insisted on treating him “like a girl.?

Colleges, trans activists and advocates say, are even less prepared for advising students on how their gender-variant identities may affect their futures, including their professional lives. After all, many states don’t have protection for gender-nonconforming people in the workplace, and “gender identity? was recently dropped from the 2007 Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA. “There’s no professional development for trans kids at colleges,? said Shannon Sennott, a founder of Translate, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit group that holds workshops on trans awareness at women’s colleges. “The majority disappear into big cities, working as bartenders with advanced degrees because there’s real prejudice against trans workers.? Hadley Smith, a recent Wellesley graduate and a Translate founder who describes himself as gender-nonconforming, said that unemployment or limited employment is par for the course for many transgendered people, but those limits may seem starker when high-achieving graduates from educationally competitive schools like Smith College feel, out of fear of discriminating employers, that they have to abandon, at least temporarily, their professional aspirations.

Some transmale students ultimately go “stealth? after graduation, not mentioning their earlier lives as women. When I asked Rey how he hoped to handle it, he said he had no intention of hiding and was planning to be out as a transman for the rest of his life. With all the bravado of youth, he said: “I won’t get a career that I can’t be out and trans in. I’m not planning to go into business.

“I’ve learned not to try to see my future — to do the best I can in the space I am in,? he continued, and then added shyly, “I would like to, you know, make public art.?

On a winter afternoon, I visited Rey at his new workplace at Columbia University’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, where he was organizing a series of trans awareness events on campus. Rey was being paid by the college to create the series, and at the moment he had two chores on his list: booking a transmale photographer as a speaker and creating signage for gender-neutral bathrooms. To achieve the latter, Rey was busy sketching possible new symbols. Melissa, his girlfriend, was helping him. First they turned the familiar female stick figure into a rocket ship, making her legs into a flame. Rey created a few variations of the sign with a ballpoint pen. Then he drew a confused-looking person standing in front of both a male and a female bathroom, not knowing which one to pick. Next, he tried a single circle with the male and female symbols attached to it. Melissa laughed mockingly at the drawing of the confused man, but she nodded her head in approval at the two other symbols.

The dynamic between the two is often like this — teasingly supportive. Earlier at lunch, Melissa joked about whether they were even in a relationship, “I’m not sure: Rey doesn’t do labels.? Then she told Rey, “I’ve saved 20 voice mails of your voice changing over the last four months.? He looked at her adoringly as they ate French fries in sync: Melissa was not only his girlfriend but also the historian of his identity.

“Before I was on hormones, people would get confused when I spoke over the phone — they thought I was male, and then they’d start asking questions about how old I was,? Rey said. “I didn’t want to stay a prepubescent boy.?

When talk turned to the couple’s plans for the future, Melissa was more concerned about Rey leaving “wet towels on the floor,? she said, and “tracking mud in the house? than about his medical transition. His lack of housekeeping skills was particularly on her mind, since the two are planning to move in together over the summer. “We’ll stay together,? Melissa said. “That’s unless you go gay . . . again.? She laughed. She was talking about the possibility of Rey’s coming out a second time — going from being a woman who loves women to a man who loves women to a man who loves men. The remark was meant lightly, but nonetheless it got to the heart of the radical gender leaps both she and Rey were making in their everyday lives.

Then Rey grew more serious.

“Some transmen want to be seen as men — they want to be accepted as born men,? he said. “I want to be accepted as a transman — my brain is not gendered. There’s this crazy gender binary that’s built into all of life, that there are just two genders that are acceptable. I don’t want to have to fit into that.?

Alissa Quart is the author, of “Branded? and “Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child.? She is at work on a book about America’s subcultures.

Article found here:

December 19, 2007

Murder by Numbers

Below is an excerpt from an article in The Rake about crimes in Minneapolis. Follow this link to read the article in its entirety:


No matter how it’s broken down statistically, murder is ultimately just a surrogate for the broader perceptions about security and danger that profoundly shape our lives. We focus on homicides, in part, because they can be measured with relative accuracy. Few go unreported; the demarcation between life and death is clear. In legal terms, too, it makes a huge difference: When a man was shot at a downtown Minneapolis bus stop in late November, the fact that he survived meant that the shooter could not be charged with murder. Knowing that the victim survived, however, does not make those who witnessed the shooting, or who wait at that bus stop every day, feel measurably safer.

Among themselves, criminologists often speak of homicide as merely one type of aggravated assault, in which numerous factors—the shooter’s skill, proximity to advanced trauma care, and sheer luck—influence the fate of the victim. A half-inch difference in where a bullet hits can mean the difference between life and death. Researchers at Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts have estimated that the U.S. murder rate would be roughly three times higher without the advances in emergency-room medicine that have occurred since 1960. And so Minneapolis’ overall homicide rate is surely reduced by the proximity of two Level I trauma centers, at Hennepin County and North Memorial Medical Centers.

But trauma surgeons saving the lives of gunshot victims masks the true dimensions of the problem, which is not so much murder as it is violence in general. A better measure of that violence might be a tally of those who are intentionally shot, or shot at, in the city; however, such figures are unfortunately only “semi-accurate,? said Minneapolis police Lieutenant Greg Reinhardt. “You don’t see a gang member saying, ‘I want to make a report that I was shot at.’ They’re going to take care of it themselves.?

Still, even the number of reported shootings in 2006 rose twelve percent over 2005, according to police figures. Aggravated assaults, which include shootings, were up sixteen percent in the same period, and weapons-related arrests were up fourteen percent. Nearly three-quarters of Minneapolis’ homicide victims in 2006 were killed with handguns; a decade earlier, when the city had eighty-eight homicides, handguns were used in about half of them. One logical response to violent crime, then, might be to take away guns from those with a propensity for violence. Police in Kansas City, Missouri, for example, cut gun crimes nearly in half when they dramatically increased enforcement in “gun crime hot spots? of laws that prohibit the carrying of concealed weapons. They took away sixty-five percent more guns than in the previous year. Researchers have reported similar results in other cities, but the methods used to seize those guns have often proved controversial, with frequent charges that police rely on racial profiling to decide whom to search.

At universities and think tanks across the United States, a small cottage industry of researchers has tried to understand why and how murder occurs, and by extension how to curb it. There is even a peer-reviewed journal, Homicide Studies. (From its November 2006 issue: “The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind is Designed to Kill.?) Like law-enforcement officials, those researchers routinely classify homicides in a variety of ways: by the relationship between victim and killer, say, or by looking at whether illegal drugs or gang membership were involved.

If the goal is to reduce the number of murders, those distinctions make sense. Preventing the death of a young child at the hands of a caregiver (No. 13, three-year-old Ethan Hamilton) or of an intimate partner (No. 43, Martell Delaney) requires a different strategy from, say, stopping drive-by shootings (No. 50, South High student Gennaro Knox ), violent robberies (No. 12, Michael Zebuhr), or drug-related murders (No. 16, Garey Hannah). Likewise, this analysis helps us gauge risk and protect ourselves.

But these distinctions have negative consequences, as well. They inherently place at least part of the blame for murder on the victim. One was buying illegal drugs, a second argued with a gang member, another chose to live with a violent partner. In this crude calculus, it is the random act of violence that haunts urban America. Thus, as the Star Tribune reported in the wake of that November bus-stop murder: “The downtown shooting wasn’t random … The boy was shot by another person who … knew the parties involved.? The subtext: You, dear reader, are safe.

These distinctions create a sort of economy of homicide, in which some lives are more valuable than others. And in this economy, daily news coverage becomes a rough measure of value. Only a handful of the city’s murders in 2006 made front-page news, and those often had a ready-made nickname (the Block E shooting, the Uptown murder), or at least a shocking detail (killed for a basketball jersey). The killing of Michael Zebuhr merited 7,500 words. Including the trial and its aftermath, the death of Alan Reitter, near Block E, generated more than 11,000 words. Michael Eide, shot near Twenty-ninth and Morgan Avenues North, was worth 313. Erman Edmonds, shot on the 3700 block of Columbus Avenue South, warranted 105.

At the very nadir of this process, the act of living in or even visiting a neighborhood plagued by violence tacitly becomes equated with risk. Murder, Drake says, “becomes normal. ‘That’s just a bad neighborhood.’ It becomes acceptable—expected—that homicide will occur there.?

In recent years, researchers in the field of public health have become involved in this discussion of homicide. From their perspective, murder might be seen as a disease that disproportionately afflicts men: In Minneapolis, the murder rate for men (27.9 per hundred thousand residents) is nearly eight times higher than it is for women (3.6). Homicide disproportionately affects African Americans, especially men: Their murder rate in Minneapolis (eighty-seven per hundred thousand) is about fifteen times that of white men (5.6). Homicide rates for black male teenagers (202 per hundred thousand) and black men aged twenty to twenty-nine (244 per hundred thousand) are staggeringly high. (The rates for whites are fifteen and eleven, respectively.) As with the maps plotting out murder locations in Minneapolis, these figures remain fundamentally consistent, year after year, decade after decade, both here and in many American cities.

Not that plenty of people aren’t trying to reduce the violence, using myriad strategies, both obvious (a police juvenile-crime apprehension unit, gun buy-back programs, increased patrols in hot spots, the new “Shotspotter? technology) and not so obvious (nonprofit organizations that rehabilitate problem properties).

We also talk good. Last August, Mayor Rybak spoke of public safety as a “civil right.? Quoting the mayor, the Strib wrote an impassioned editorial, pointing out how angry we would be if armed thugs terrorized the streets of Edina. Governor Pawlenty called the violence in Minneapolis “a statewide concern.? We write this article.

But lacking a coherent, systematic plan to address violence, all of the above amounts to tinkering. Some years see more cops added to the police force, or more dollars budgeted for overtime. But by leaving the problem to the cops (as though a thousand more officers might alone solve the problem), we forget that our safety depends most on voluntary adherence to law. As a city and state, we make a cost-benefit analysis, essentially deciding that a certain number of lives are expendable.

By contrast, Boston radically reduced its youth homicide rate in the 1990s with a comprehensive, multidisciplinary effort that has been dubbed the “Boston Miracle.? According to figures published in Murder Is No Accident, by Doctors Deborah Prothrow-Stith and Howard Spivak, fourteen children aged sixteen and under were killed by handguns there in 1988. By 1996, the city had in place more than a dozen antiviolence programs that involved numerous organizations, including community groups, the police, and hospitals. Schools, for example, taught an antiviolence curriculum. Hospitals assessed victims of violence to determine whether they were at risk of additional attacks; doctors, social workers and nurses attempted to prevent them much as they might try to prevent asthma attacks. Community groups sought to give young people alternatives to joining gangs. The police department instituted community policing and worked with probation officers to hold youth offenders accountable. The result: Between 1996 and 1998, Prothrow-Stith and Spivak report, not one child sixteen and under was killed with a handgun in Boston. Over an eight-year period, the city averaged just one such killing a year, compared with an average of seven per year in the preceeding eight years.

Many of these same programs have been implemented in cities all over the U.S., including Minneapolis. So what made Boston special? Even the authors of Murder Is No Accident, who were themselves primary architects of the Boston Violence Prevention Project, say they “don’t know exactly what happened.? While politicians and police chiefs are often quick to claim credit for reductions in crime, criminologists admit in moments of candor how little we truly know. “It’s a Crime What We Don’t Know About Crime,? the Washington Post titled one essay last July.

In this context, Courtney Brown’s death in September was, paradoxically, both random and predictable. There was no way to know that this “innocent? and “sweet? boy (as then-Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar described him) would die a “senseless? death, any more than we can know exactly who will die from secondhand smoke, and when. But the circumstances were volatile in Courtney Brown’s neighborhood. Similar killings outraged the city in the Murderapolis years. A similar killing will likely happen this year, too.

“When the [homicide] rates are going down, we feel relieved,? said Drake, “but there’s never a sense that we can eliminate homicide altogether. We expect a certain number. That’s a sick way of thinking. Not all countries have the homicide rate that we have.? By implication, the invocation of public health tells us something else important: Murder is preventable. So says a sign on the wall of Drake’s office.

December 3, 2007

Betrayed: The Iraqis Who Trusted America the Most

The New Yorker
A Reporter at Large
The Iraqis who trusted America the most.
by George Packer March 26, 2007

On a cold, wet night in January, I met two young Iraqi men in the lobby of the Palestine Hotel, in central Baghdad. A few Arabic television studios had rooms on the upper floors of the building, but the hotel was otherwise vacant. In the lobby, a bucket collected drips of rainwater; at the gift shop, which was closed, a shelf displayed film, batteries, and sheathed daggers covered in dust. A sign from another era read, “We have great pleasure in announcing the opening of the Internet café 24 hour a day. At the business center on the first floor. The management.? The management consisted of a desk clerk and a few men in black leather jackets slouched in armchairs and holding two-way radios.

The two Iraqis, Othman and Laith, had asked to meet me at the Palestine because it was the only place left in Baghdad where they were willing to be seen with an American. They lived in violent neighborhoods that were surrounded by militia checkpoints. Entering and leaving the Green Zone, the fortified heart of the American presence, had become too risky. But even the Palestine made them nervous. In October, 2005, a suicide bomber driving a cement mixer had triggered an explosion that nearly brought down the hotel’s eighteen-story tower. An American tank unit that was guarding the hotel eventually pulled out, leaving security in the hands of Iraqi civilians. It would now be relatively easy for insurgents to get inside. The one comforting thought for Othman and Laith was that, four years into the war, the Palestine was no longer worth attacking.

The Iraqis and I went up to a room on the eighth floor. Othman smoked by the window while Laith sat on one of the twin beds. (The names of most of the Iraqis in this story have been changed for their protection.) Othman was a heavyset doctor, twenty-nine years old, with a gentle voice and an unflappable ironic manner. Laith, an engineer with rimless eyeglasses, was younger and taller, and given to bursts of enthusiasm and displeasure. Othman was Sunni, Laith was Shiite.

It had taken Othman three days to get to the hotel from his house, in western Baghdad. On the way, he was trapped for two nights at his sister’s house, which was in an ethnically mixed neighborhood: gun battles had broken out between Sunni and Shiite militiamen. Othman watched the home of his sister’s neighbor, a Sunni, burn to the ground. Shiite militiamen scrawled the words “Leave or else? on the doors of Sunni houses. Othman was able to leave the house only because his sister’s husband—a Shiite, who was known to the local Shia militias—escorted him out. Othman took a taxi to the house of Laith’s grandfather; from there, he and Laith went to the Palestine, where they enjoyed their first hot water in several weeks.

They had a strong friendship, based on a shared desire. Before the war, they had both longed for the arrival of the Americans, expecting them to change their lives. They had told each other that they would try to work with the foreigners. Othman and Laith were both secular, and despised the extremist militias on each side of Iraq’s civil war, but the ethnic conflict had led them increasingly to quarrel, to the point that one of them—usually Laith—would refuse to speak to the other.

Laith began to describe these strains. “It started when the Americans came with Shia leaders and wanted to give the Shia leadership—?

“And kick out the Sunnis,? Othman interrupted. “You admit this? You were not admitting it before.?

“The Americans don’t want to kick out the Sunnis,? Laith said. “They want to give Shia the power because most Iraqis are Shia.?

“And you believe the Sunnis did not want to participate, right?? Othman said. “The Americans didn’t give them the chance to participate.? He turned to me: “You know I’m not just saying this because I’m a Sunni—?

Laith rolled his eyes. “Whatever.?

“But I think the Shia made the Sunnis feel that they’re against them.?

“This is not the point, who started it,? Laith said heatedly. “Everybody is getting killed, the Shia and the Sunnis.? He paused. “But if we think who started it, I think the Sunnis started it!?

“I think the Shia,? Othman repeated, with calm knowingness. He said to me, “When I feel that I’m pushing too much and he starts to become so angry, I pull the brake.?

Laith had a job with an American organization, affiliated with the National Endowment for Democracy, that encouraged private enterprise in developing countries. Othman had worked with a German group called Architects for People in Need, and then as a translator for foreign journalists. These were coveted jobs, but over time they had become so dangerous that Othman and Laith could talk candidly about their lives with no one except each other.

“I trust him,? Othman said of his friend. “We’ve shared our experiences with foreigners—the good and the bad. We don’t have a secret life when we are together. But when we go out we have to lie.?

Othman’s cell phone rang: a friend was calling from Jordan. “I had a vision that you’ll be killed by the end of the month,? he told Othman. “Get out now, please. You can stay here with me. We’ll live on pasta.? Othman said something reassuring and hung up, but his phone kept ringing, the friend calling back; his vision had made him hysterical.

A string of bad events had given Othman the sense that time was running out for him in Iraq. In November, members of the Mahdi Army—the Shia militia commanded by the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr—rounded up Othman’s older brother and several other Sunnis who worked in a shop in a mixed neighborhood. The Sunnis were taken to a local Shia mosque and shot. Othman’s brother was only grazed in the head, but a Shiite soldier noticed that he was still alive and shot him in the eye. Somehow, he survived this, too. Othman found his brother and took him to a hospital for surgery. The hospital—like the entire Iraqi health system—was under the Mahdi Army’s control, and Othman decided that his brother would be safer at their parents’ house. The brother was now blind, deranged, and vengeful, making life unbearable for Othman’s family. A few days later, Othman’s elderly maternal aunts, who were Shia and lived in a majority-Sunni area, were told by Sunni insurgents that they had three days to leave. Othman’s father, a retired Sunni officer, went to their neighborhood and convinced the insurgents that his wife’s sisters were, in fact, Sunnis. And then, one day in January, Othman’s two teen-age brothers, Muhammad and Salim, on whom he doted, failed to come home from school. Othman called the cell phone of Muhammad, who was fifteen. “Is this Muhammad?? he said.

A stranger’s voice answered: “No, I’m not Muhammad.?

“Where is Muhammad??

“Muhammad is right here,? the stranger said. “I’m looking at him now. We have both of them.?

“Are you joking??

“No, I’m not. Are you Sunni or Shia??

Thinking of what had happened to his older brother, Othman lied: “We’re Shia.? The stranger told him to prove it. The boys had left their identity cards at home, for their own safety.

Othman’s mother took the phone, sobbing and begging the kidnapper not to hurt her boys. “We’re going to behead them,? the kidnapper told her. “Choose where you want us to throw the bodies. Or do you prefer us to cut them to pieces for you? We enjoy cutting young boys to pieces.? The man hung up.

After several more phone conversations, Othman realized his mistake: the kidnappers were Sunnis, with Al Qaeda. Shiites are not Muslims, the kidnappers told him—they deserve to be killed. Then they stopped answering the phone. Othman called a friend who belonged to a Sunni political party with ties to insurgents; over the course of the afternoon, the friend got the kidnappers back on the phone and convinced them that the boys were Sunnis. They were released with apologies, along with their money and their phones.

It was the worst day of Othman’s life. He said he would never forget the sound of the stranger’s voice.

Othman began a campaign of burning. He went into the yard or up on the roof of his parents’ house with a jerrican of kerosene and set fire to papers, identity badges, books in English, photographs—anything that might incriminate him as an Iraqi who worked with foreigners. If Othman had to flee Iraq, he wanted to leave nothing behind that might harm him or his family. He couldn’t bring himself to destroy a few items, though: his diaries, his weekly notes from the hospital where he had once worked. “I have this bad habit of keeping everything like memories,? he said.

Most of the people Othman and Laith knew had left Iraq. House by house, Baghdad was being abandoned. Othman was considering his options: move his parents from their house (in an insurgent stronghold) to his sister’s house (in the midst of civil war); move his parents and brothers to Syria (where there was no work) and live with his friend in Jordan (going crazy with boredom while watching his savings dwindle); go to London and ask for asylum (and probably be sent back); stay in Baghdad for six more months until he could begin a scholarship that he’d won, to study journalism in America (or get killed waiting). Beneath his calm good humor, Othman was paralyzed—he didn’t want to leave Baghdad and his family, but staying had become impossible. Every day, he changed his mind.

From the hotel window, Othman could see the palace domes of the Green Zone directly across the Tigris River. “It’s sad,? he told me. “With all the hopes that we had, and all the dreams, I was totally against the word ‘invasion.’ Wherever I go, I was defending the Americans and strongly saying, ‘America was here to make a change.’ Now I have my doubts.?

Laith was more blunt: “Sometimes, I feel like we’re standing in line for a ticket, waiting to die.?

By the time Othman and Laith finished talking, it was almost ten o’clock. We went downstairs and found the hotel restaurant empty, with no light or heat. A waiter in a white shirt and black vest emerged out of the darkness to take our orders. We shivered for an hour until the food came.

There was an old woman at the cash register, with long, dyed-blond hair, a shapeless gown, and a macramé beret that kept falling off her head. I recognized her: she had been the cashier in 2003, when I first came to the Palestine. Her name was Taja, and she had worked at the hotel for twenty-five years. She had the smile of a mad hag.

I asked if there had been any other customers tonight. “My dear, no one,? Taja said, in English. The sight of me seemed to jar loose a bundle of memories. Her brother had gone to New Orleans in 1948 and forgotten all about her. There was music here in the old days, she said, and she sang a few lines from the Spaniels’ “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight?:

Goodnight, sweetheart,
Well it’s time to go.
I hate to leave you, but I really must say,
Goodnight, sweetheart, goodnight.

When the Americans first came, Taja said, the hotel was full of customers, including marines. She took the exam to work as a translator three times, but kept failing, because the questions were so hard: “The spider is an insect or an animal?? “Water is a beverage or a food?? Who could answer such questions?

Taja smiled at us. “Now all finished,? she said.


Millions of Iraqis, spanning the country’s religious and ethnic spectrum, welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But the mostly young men and women who embraced America’s project so enthusiastically that they were prepared to risk their lives for it may constitute Iraq’s smallest minority. I came across them in every city: the young man in Mosul who loved Metallica and signed up to be a translator at a U.S. Army base; the DVD salesman in Najaf whose plans to study medicine were crushed by Baath Party favoritism, and who offered his services to the first American Humvee that entered his city. They had learned English from American movies and music, and from listening secretly to the BBC. Before the war, their only chance at a normal life was to flee the country—a nearly impossible feat. Their future in Saddam’s Iraq was, as the Metallica fan in Mosul put it, “a one-way road leading to nothing.? I thought of them as oddballs, like misunderstood high-school students whose isolation ends when they go off to college. In a similar way, the four years of the war created intense friendships, but they were forged through collective disappointment. The arc from hope to betrayal that traverses the Iraq war is nowhere more vivid than in the lives of these Iraqis. America’s failure to understand, trust, and protect its closest friends in Iraq is a small drama that contains the larger history of defeat.

An interpreter named Firas—he insisted on using his real name—grew up in a middle-class Shia family in a prosperous Baghdad neighborhood. He is a big man in his mid-thirties with a shaved head, and his fierce, heavily ringed eyes provide a glimpse into the reserves of energy that lie beneath his phlegmatic surface. As a young man, Firas was shut out of a government job by his family’s religious affiliation and by his lack of connections. He wasted his twenties in a series of petty occupations: selling cigarettes wholesale; dealing in spare parts; peddling books on Mutanabi Street, in old Baghdad. Books, more than anything, shaped Firas’s passionately melancholy character. As a young man, he kept a credo on his wall in English and Arabic: “Be honest without the thought of Heaven or Hell.? He was particularly impressed by “The Outsider,? a 1956 philosophical work by the British existentialist Colin Wilson. “He wrote about the ‘non-belonger,’ ? Firas explained. Firas felt like an exile in his own land, but, he recalled, “There was always this sound in the back of my head: the time will come, the change will come, my time will come. And when 2003 came, I couldn’t believe how right I was.?

Overnight, everything was new. Americans, whom he had seen only in movies, rolled through the streets. Men who had been silent all their lives cursed Saddam in front of their neighbors. The fall of the regime revealed traits that Iraqis had kept hidden: the greed that drove some to loot, the courage that made others stay on the job. Firas felt a lifelong depression lift. “The first thing I learned about myself was that I can make things happen,? he said. “When you feel that you are an outcast, you don’t really put an effort in anything. But after the war I would run here and there, I would kill myself, I would focus on one thing and not stop until I do it.?

Thousands of Iraqis converged on the Palestine Hotel and, later, the Green Zone, in search of work with the Americans. In the chaos of the early days, a demonstrable ability to speak English—sometimes in a chance encounter with a street patrol—was enough to get you hired by an enterprising Marine captain. Firas began working in military intelligence. Almost all the Iraqis who were hired became interpreters, and American soldiers called them “terps,? often giving them nicknames for convenience and, later, security (Firas became Phil). But what the Iraqis had to offer went well beyond linguistic ability: each of them was, potentially, a cultural adviser, an intelligence officer, a policy analyst. Firas told the soldiers not to point with their feet, not to ask to be introduced to someone’s sister. Interpreters assumed that their perspective would be valuable to foreigners who knew little or nothing of Iraq.

Whenever I asked Iraqis what kind of government they had wanted to replace Saddam’s regime, I got the same answer: they had never given it any thought. They just assumed that the Americans would bring the right people, and the country would blossom with freedom, prosperity, consumer goods, travel opportunities. In this, they mirrored the wishful thinking of American officials and neoconservative intellectuals who failed to plan for trouble. Almost no Iraqi claimed to have anticipated videos of beheadings, or Moqtada al-Sadr, or the terrifying question “Are you Sunni or Shia?? Least of all did they imagine that America would make so many mistakes, and persist in those mistakes to the point that even fair-minded Iraqis wondered about ulterior motives. In retrospect, the blind faith that many Iraqis displayed in themselves and in America seems naïve. But, now that Iraq’s demise is increasingly regarded as foreordained, it’s worth recalling the optimism among Iraqis four years ago.

Ali, an interpreter in Baghdad, spent his childhood in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma, where his father was completing his graduate studies. In 1987, when Ali was eleven and his father was shortly to get his green card, the family returned to Baghdad for a brief visit. But it was during the war with Iran, and the authorities refused to let them leave again. Ali had to learn Arabic from scratch. He grew up in Ghazaliya, a Baathist stronghold in western Baghdad where Shia families like his were rare. Iraq felt like a prison, and Ali considered his American childhood a paradise lost.

In 2003, soon after the arrival of the Americans, soldiers in his neighborhood persuaded him to work as an interpreter with the 82nd Airborne Division. He wore a U.S. Army uniform and a bandanna, and during interrogations he used broken Arabic in order to make prisoners think he was American. Although the work was not yet dangerous, an instinct led him to mask his identity and keep his job to himself around the neighborhood. Ali found that, although many soldiers were friendly, they often ignored information and advice from their Iraqi employees. Interpreters would give them names of insurgents, and nothing would happen. When Ali suggested that soldiers buy up locals’ rocket-propelled grenade launchers so that they would not fall into the hands of insurgents, he was disregarded. When interpreters drove onto the base, their cars were searched, and at the end of their shift they would sometimes find their car doors unlocked or a mirror broken—the cars had been searched again. “People came with true faces to the Americans, with complete loyalty,? Ali said. “But, from the beginning, they didn’t trust us.?

Ali initially worked the night shift at a base in his neighborhood and walked home by himself after midnight. In June, 2003, the Americans mounted a huge floodlight at the front gate of the base, and when Ali left for home the light projected his shadow hundreds of feet down the street. “It’s dangerous,? he told the soldiers at the gate. “Can’t you turn it off when we go out??

“Don’t be scared,? the soldiers told him. “There’s a sniper protecting you all the way.?

A couple of weeks later, one of Ali’s Iraqi friends was hanging out with the snipers in the tower, and he thanked them. “For what?? the snipers asked. For looking out for us, Ali’s friend said. The snipers didn’t know what he was talking about, and when he told them they started laughing.

“We got freaked out,? Ali said. The message was clear: You Iraqis are on your own.


The Arabic for “collaborator? is aameel—literally, “agent.? Early in the occupation, the Baathists in Ali’s neighborhood, who at first had been cowed by the Americans’ arrival, began a shrewd whispering campaign. They told their neighbors that the Iraqi interpreters who went along on raids were feeding the Americans false information, urging the abuse of Iraqis, stealing houses, and raping women. In the market, a Baathist would point at an Iraqi riding in the back of a Humvee and say, “He’s a traitor, a thug.? Such rumors were repeated often enough that people began to believe them, especially as the promised benefits of the American occupation failed to materialize. Before long, Ali told me, the Baathists “made the reputation of the interpreter very, very low—worse than the Americans’.?

There was no American campaign to counter the word on the street; there wasn’t even a sense that these subversive rumors posed a serious threat. “Americans are living in another world,? Ali said. “There’s an Iraqi saying: ‘He’s sleeping and his feet are baking in the sun.’ ? The U.S. typically provided interpreters with inferior or no body armor, allowing the Baathists to make a persuasive case that Americans treated all Iraqis badly, even those who worked for them.

“The Iraqis aren’t trusting you, and the Americans don’t trust you from the beginning,? Ali said. “You became a person in between.?

Firas met the personal interpreter of L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority—which governed Iraq for fourteen months after the invasion—in the fall of 2003. Soon, Firas had secured a privileged view of official America, translating documents at the Republican Palace, in the Green Zone.

He liked most of the American officials who came and went at the palace. Even when he saw colossal mistakes at high levels—for example, Bremer’s decision to abolish the Iraqi Army—Firas admired his new colleagues, and believed that they were helping to create institutions that would lead to a better future. And yet Firas kept being confronted by fresh ironies: he had less authority than any of the Americans, although he knew more about Iraq; and the less that Americans knew about Iraq the less they wanted to hear from him, especially if they occupied high positions.

One day, Firas accompanied one of Bremer’s top political advisers to a meeting with an important Shiite cleric. The cleric’s mosque, the Baratha, is an ancient Shiite bastion, and Firas, whose family came from the holy city of Najaf, knew a great deal about the mosque and the cleric. On the way, the adviser asked, “Is this a mosque or a shrine or what?? Firas said, “It’s the Baratha mosque,? and he started to explain its significance, but the adviser cut him short: “O.K., got it.? They went into the meeting with the cleric, who was from a hard-line party backed by Tehran but who spoke as if he represented the views of all Iraqis. He didn’t represent the views of many people Firas knew, and, given the chance, Firas could have told the adviser that the mosque and its Imam had a history of promoting Shia nationalism. “There were a million comments in my head,? Firas recalled. “Why the hell was he paying so much attention to this Imam??

Bremer and his advisers—Scott Carpenter, Meghan O’Sullivan, and Roman Martinez—were creating an interim constitution and negotiating the transfer of power to Iraqis, but they did not speak Arabic and had no background in the Middle East. The Iraqis they spent time with were, for the most part, returned exiles with sectarian agendas. The Americans had little sense of what ordinary Iraqis were experiencing, and they seemed oblivious of a readily available source of knowledge: the Iraqi employees who had lived in Baghdad for years, and who went home to its neighborhoods every night. “These people would consider themselves too high to listen to a translator,? Firas said. “Maybe they were interested more in telling D.C. what they want to hear instead of telling them what the Iraqis are saying.?

Later, when the Coalition Provisional Authority was replaced by the U.S. Embassy, and political appointees gave way to career diplomats, Firas found himself working for a different kind of American. The Embassy’s political counsellor, Robert Ford, his deputy, Henry Ensher, and a younger official in the political section, Jeffrey Beals, spoke Arabic, had worked extensively in the region, and spent most of their time in Baghdad talking to a range of Iraqis, including extremists. They gave Firas and other “foreign-service nationals? more authority, encouraging them to help write reports on Iraqi politics that were sometimes forwarded to Washington. Beals would be interviewed in Arabic on Al Jazeera and then endure a thorough critique by an Iraqi colleague—Ahmed, a tall, handsome Kurdish Shiite who lived just outside Sadr City, and who was obsessed with Iraqi politics. When Firas, Ali, and Ahmed visited New York during a training trip, Beals’s brother was their escort.

Beals quit the foreign service after almost two years in Iraq and is now studying history at Columbia University. He said that, with Americans in Baghdad coming and going every six or twelve months, “the lowest rung on your ladder ends up being the real institutional memory and repository of expertise—which is always a tension, because it’s totally at odds with their status.? The inversion of the power relationship between American officials and Iraqi employees became more dramatic as the dangers increased and American civilians lost almost all mobility around Baghdad. Beals said, “There aren’t many people with pro-American eyes and the means to get their message across who can go into Sadr City and tell you what’s happening day to day.?


On the morning of January 18, 2004, a suicide truck bomber detonated a massive payload amid a line of vehicles waiting to enter the Green Zone by the entry point known as the Assassins’ Gate. Most Iraqis working in the Green Zone knew someone who died in the explosion, which incinerated twenty-five people. Ali was hit by the blowback but was otherwise uninjured; two months later, he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt while driving to work. Throughout 2004, the murder of interpreters and other Iraqi employees became increasingly commonplace. Seven of Ali’s friends who worked with the U.S. military were killed, which prompted him to leave the Army and take a job at the Embassy.

In Mosul, insurgents circulated a DVD showing the decapitations of two military interpreters. American soldiers stationed there expressed sympathy to their Iraqi employees, but, one interpreter told me, there was “no real reaction?: no offer of protection, in the form of a weapons permit or a place to live on base. He said, “The soldiers I worked with were friends and they felt sorry for us—they were good people—but they couldn’t help. The people above them didn’t care. Or maybe the people above them didn’t care.? This story repeated itself across the country: Iraqi employees of the U.S. military began to be kidnapped and killed in large numbers, and there was essentially no American response. Titan Corporation, of Chantilly, Virginia, which until December held the Pentagon contract for employing interpreters in Iraq, was notorious among Iraqis for mistreating its foreign staff. I spoke with an interpreter who was injured in a roadside explosion; Titan refused to compensate him for the time he spent recovering from second-degree burns on his hands and feet. An Iraqi woman working at an American base was recognized by someone she had known in college, who began calling her with death threats. She told me that when she went to the Titan representative for help he responded, “You have two choices: move or quit.? She told him that if she quit and stayed home, her life would be in danger. “That’s not my business,? the representative said. (A Titan spokesperson said, “The safety and welfare of all employees, including, of course, contract workers, is the highest priority.?)

A State Department official in Iraq sent a cable to Washington criticizing the Americans’ “lackadaisical? attitude about helping Iraqi employees relocate. In an e-mail to me, he said, “Most of them have lived secret lives for so long that they are truly a unique ‘homeless’ population in Iraq’s war zone—dependent on us for security and not convinced we will take care of them when we leave.? It’s as if the Americans never imagined that the intimidation and murder of interpreters by other Iraqis would undermine the larger American effort, by destroying the confidence of Iraqis who wanted to give it support. The problem was treated as managerial, not moral or political.

One day in January, 2005, Riyadh Hamid, a Sunni father of six from the Embassy’s political section, was shot to death as he left his house for work. When Firas heard the news at the Embassy, he was deeply shaken: he, Ali, or Ahmed could be next. But he never thought of quitting. “At that time, I believed more in my cause, so if I die for it, let it be,? he said.

Americans and Iraqis at the Embassy collected twenty thousand dollars in private donations for Hamid’s widow. At first, the U.S. government refused to pay workmen’s compensation, because Hamid had been travelling between home and work and was not technically on the job when he was killed. (Eventually, compensation was approved.) A few days after the murder, Robert Ford, the political counsellor, arranged a conversation between Ambassador John Negroponte and the Iraqis from the political section, whom the Ambassador had never met. The Iraqis were escorted into a room in a secure wing of the Embassy’s second floor.

Negroponte had barely expressed his condolences when Firas, Ahmed, and their colleagues pressed him with a single request. They wanted identification that would allow them to enter the Green Zone through the priority lane that Americans with government clearance used, instead of having to wait every morning for an hour or two in a very long line with every other Iraqi who had business in the Green Zone. This line was an easy target for suicide bombers and insurgent lookouts (known in Iraq as alaasa—“chewers?). Iraqis at the Embassy had been making this request for some time, without success. “Our problem is badges,? the Iraqis told the Ambassador.

Negroponte sent for the Embassy’s regional security officer, John Frese. “Here’s the man who is responsible for badges,? Negroponte said, and left.

According to the Iraqis, they asked Frese for green badges, which were a notch below the official blue American badges. These allowed the holder to enter through the priority lane and then be searched inside the gate.

“I can’t give you that,? Frese said.


“Because it says ‘Weapon permit: yes.’ ?

“Change the ‘yes’ to ‘no’ for us.?

Frese’s tone was peremptory: “I can’t do that.?

Ahmed made another suggestion: allow the Iraqis to use their Embassy passes to get into the priority lane. Frese again refused. Ahmed turned to one of his colleagues and said, in Arabic, “We’re blowing into a punctured bag.?

“My top priority is Embassy security, and I won’t jeopardize it, no matter what,? Frese told them, and the Iraqis understood that this security did not extend to them—if anything, they were part of the threat.

After the meeting, a junior American diplomat who had sat through it was on the verge of tears. “This is what always calmed me down,? Firas said. “I saw Americans who understand me, trust me, believe me, love me. This is what always kept my rage under control and kept my hope alive.?

When I recently asked a senior government official in Washington about the badges, he insisted, “They are concerns that have been raised, addressed, and satisfactorily resolved. We acted extremely expeditiously.? In fact, the matter was left unresolved for almost two years, until late 2006, when verbal instructions were given to soldiers at the gates of the Green Zone to let Iraqis with Embassy passes into the priority lane—and even then individual soldiers, among whom there was rapid turnover, often refused to do so.

Americans and Iraqis recalled the meeting as the moment when the Embassy’s local employees began to be disenchanted. If Negroponte had taken an interest, he could have pushed Frese to change the badges. But a diplomat doesn’t rise to Negroponte’s stature by busying himself with small-bore details, and without his directive the rest of the bureaucracy wouldn’t budge.

In Baghdad, the regional security officer had unusual power: to investigate staff members, to revoke clearances, to block diplomats’ trips outside the Green Zone. The word “security? was ubiquitous—a “magical word,? one Iraqi said, that could justify anything. “Saying no to the regional security officer is a dangerous thing,? according to a second former Embassy official, who occasionally did say no in order to be able to carry out his job. “You’re taking a lot of responsibility on yourself.? Although Iraqi employees had been vetted with background checks and took regular lie-detector tests, a permanent shadow of suspicion lay over them because they lived outside the Green Zone. Firas once attended a briefing at which the regional security officer told newly arrived Americans that no Iraqi could be trusted.

The reminders were constant. Iraqi staff members were not allowed into the gym or the food court near the Embassy. Banned from the military PX, they had to ask an American supervisor to buy them a pair of sunglasses or underwear. These petty humiliations were compounded by security officers who easily crossed the line between vigilance and bullying.

One day in late 2004, Laith, who had never given up hope of working for the American Embassy, did well on an interview in the Green Zone and was called to undergo a polygraph. After he was hooked up to the machine, the questions began: Have you ever lied to your family? Do you know any insurgents? At some point, he thought too hard about his answer; when the test was over, the technician called in a security officer and shouted at Laith: “Do you think you can fuck with the United States? Who sent you here?? Laith was hustled out to the gate, where the technician promised to tell his employers at the National Endowment for Democracy to fire him.

“That was the first time I hated the Americans,? Laith said.


In January, 2005, Kirk Johnson, a twenty-four-year-old from Illinois, arrived in Baghdad as an information officer with the United States Agency for International Development. He came from a patriotic family that believed in public service; his father was a lawyer whose chance at an open seat in Congress, in 1986, was blocked when the state Republican Party chose a former wrestling coach named Dennis Hastert to run instead. Johnson, an Arabic speaker, was studying Islamist thought as a Fulbright scholar in Cairo when the war began; when he arrived in Baghdad, he became one of U.S.A.I.D.’s few Arabic-speaking Americans in Iraq.

Johnson, who is rangy, earnest, and baby-faced, thought that he was going to help America rebuild Iraq, in a mission that was his generation’s calling. Instead, he found a “narcotic? atmosphere in the Green Zone. Surprisingly few Americans ever ventured outside its gates. A short drive from the Embassy, at the Blue Star Café—famous for its chicken fillet and fries—contractors could be seen, in golf shirts, khakis, and baseball caps, enjoying a leisurely lunch, their Department of Defense badges draped around their necks. At such moments, it was hard not to have uncharitable thoughts about the war—that Americans today aren’t equipped for something of this magnitude. Iraq is that rare war in which people put on weight. An Iraqi woman at the Embassy who had seen many Americans come and go—and revered a few of them—declared that seventy per cent of them were “useless, crippled,? avoiding debt back home or escaping a bad marriage. I met an American official who, during one year, left the Green Zone less than half a dozen times; unlike many of his colleagues, he understood this to be a problem.

The deeper the Americans dug themselves into the bunker, the harder they tried to create a sense of normalcy, resulting in what Johnson called “a bizarre arena of paperwork and booze.? There were karaoke nights and volleyball leagues, the Baghdad Regatta, and “Country Night—One Howdy-Doody Good Time.? Halliburton, the defense contractor, hosted a Middle Eastern Night. The cubicles in U.S.A.I.D.’s new Baghdad office building, Johnson discovered, were exactly the same as the cubicles at its headquarters in Washington. The more chaotic Iraq became, the more the Americans resorted to bureaucratic gestures of control. The fact that it took five signatures to get Adobe Acrobat installed on a computer was strangely comforting.

Johnson learned that Iraqis were third-class citizens in the Green Zone, after Americans and other foreigners. For a time, Americans were ordered to wear body armor while outdoors; when Johnson found out that Iraqi staff members hadn’t been provided with any, he couldn’t bear to wear his own around them. Superiors eventually ordered him to do so. “If you’re still properly calibrated, it can be a shameful sort of existence there,? Johnson said. “It takes a certain amount of self-delusion not to be brought down by it.?

In October, 2004, two bombs killed four Americans and two Iraqis at a café and a shopping center inside the Green Zone, fuelling the suspicion that there were enemies within. The Iraqi employees became perceived as part of an undifferentiated menace. They also induced a deeper, more elusive form of paranoia. As Johnson put it, “Not that we thought they’d do us bodily harm, but they represented the reality beyond those blast walls. You keep your distance from these Iraqis, because if you get close you start to discover it’s absolute bullshit—the lives of people in Baghdad aren’t safer, in spite of our trend lines or ginned-up reports by contractors that tell you everything is going great.?

After eight months in the Green Zone, Johnson felt that the impulse which had originally made him volunteer to work in Iraq was dying. He got a transfer to Falluja, to work on the front lines of the insurgency.

The Iraqis who saw both sides of the Green Zone gates had to be as alert as prey in a jungle of predators. Ahmed, the Kurdish Shiite, had the job of reporting on Shia issues, and his feel for the mood in Sadr City was crucial to the political section. When a low-flying American helicopter tore a Shia religious flag off a radio tower, Ahmed immediately picked up on rumors, started by the Mahdi Army, that Americans were targeting Shia worshippers. His job required him to seek contact with members of Shiite militias, who sometimes reacted to him with suspicion. He once went to a council meeting near Sadr City that had been called to arrange a truce between the Americans and the Mahdi Army so that garbage could be cleared from the streets. A council member confronted Ahmed, demanding to know who he was. Ahmed responded, “I’m from a Korean organization. They sent me to find out what solution you guys come up with. Then we’re ready to fund the cleanup.? At another meeting, he identified himself as a correspondent from an Iraqi television network. No one outside his immediate family knew where he worked.

Ahmed took two taxis to the Green Zone, then walked the last few hundred yards, or drove a different route every day. He carried a decoy phone and hid his Embassy phone in his car. He had always loved the idea of wearing a jacket and tie in an official job, but he had to keep them in his office at the Embassy—it was impossible to drive to work dressed like that. Ahmed and the other Iraqis entered code names for friends and colleagues into their phones, in case they were kidnapped. Whenever they got a call in public from an American contact, they answered in Arabic and immediately hung up. They communicated mostly by text message. They never spoke English in front of their children. One Iraqi employee slept in his car in the Green Zone parking lot for several nights, because it was too dangerous to go home.

Baghdad, which has six million residents, at least provided the cover of anonymity. In a small Shia city in the south, no one knew that a twenty-six-year-old Shiite named Hussein was working for the Americans. “I lie and lie and lie,? he said. He acted as a go-between, carrying information between the U.S. outpost, the local government, the Shia clergy, and the radical Sadrists. The Americans would send him to a meeting of clerics with a question, such as whether Iranian influence was fomenting violence. Instead of giving a direct answer, the clerics would demand to know why thousands of American soldiers were unable to protect Shia travellers on a ten-kilometre stretch of road. Hussein would take this back to the Americans and receive a “yes-slash-no kind of answer: We will take it up, we’ll get back to them soon—the soon becomes never.? In this way, he was privy to both sides of the deepening mutual disenchantment. The fact that he had no contact with Sunnis did not make Hussein feel any safer: by 2004, Shia militias were also targeting Iraqis who worked with Americans.

As a youth, Hussein was an overweight misfit obsessed with Second World War documentaries, and now he felt grateful to the Americans for freeing him from Saddam’s tyranny. He also took a certain pride and pleasure in carrying off his risky job. “I’m James Bond, without the nice lady or the famous gadgets,? he said. He worked out of a series of rented rooms, seldom going out in public, relying on his cell phone and his laptop, keeping a small “runaway bag? with him in case he needed to leave quickly (a neighbor once informed him that some strangers had asked who lived there, and Hussein moved out the same day). Every few days, he brought his laundry to his parents’ house. He stopped seeing friends, and his life winnowed down to his work. “You have to live two separate lives, one visible and the other one invisible,? Hussein told me when we spoke in Erbil. (He insisted on meeting in Kurdistan, because there was nowhere else in Iraq that he felt safe being seen with me.) “You have to always be aware of the car behind you. When you want to park, you make sure that the car passes you. You’re always afraid of a person staring at you in an abnormal way.?

He received three threats. The first was graffiti written across his door, the second a note left outside his house. Both said, “Leave your job or we’ll kill you.? The third came in December, after American soldiers killed a local militia leader who had been one of Hussein’s most important contacts. A friend approached Hussein and conveyed an anonymous warning: “You better not have anything to do with this event. If you do, you’ll have to take the consequences.? Since Hussein was known to have interpreted for American soldiers at the start of the war, he said, his name had long been on the Mahdi Army’s blacklist. It was not just frightening but also embarrassing to be a suspect in the militia leader’s death; it undermined Hussein in the eyes of his carefully cultivated contacts. “The stamp that comes to you will never go—you will stay a spy,? he said.

He informed his American supervisor, as he had after the previous two threats. And the reply was the same: lie low, take a leave with pay. Hussein had warm feelings for his supervisor, but he wanted a transfer to another country in the Middle East or a scholarship offer to the U.S.—some tangible sign that his safety mattered to them. None was forthcoming. Once, in April, 2004, when the Mahdi Army had overrun Coalition posts all over southern Iraq, he had asked to be evacuated along with the Americans and was refused; his pride wouldn’t let him ask again. Soon after Hussein received his third threat, his supervisor left Iraq.

“You are now belonging to no side,? Hussein said.

In June, 2006, with kidnappings and sectarian killings out of control in Baghdad, the number of Iraqis working in the Embassy’s public-affairs section dropped from nine to four; most of those who quit fled the country. The Americans began to replace them with Jordanians. The switch was deeply unpopular with the remaining Iraqis, who understood that it involved the fundamental issue of trust: Jordanians could be housed in the Green Zone without fear (Iraqis could secure temporary housing for only a limited time); Jordanians were issued badges that allowed them into the Embassy without being searched; they weren’t subject to threat and blackmail, because they lived inside the Green Zone. In every way, Jordanians were easier to deal with. But they also knew nothing about Iraq. One former Embassy official, who considered the new policy absurd, lamented that a Jordanian couldn’t possibly understand that the term “February 8th mustache,? say, referred to the 1963 Baathist coup.

In the past year, the U.S. government has lost a quarter of its two hundred and six Iraqi employees, and many have been replaced by Jordanians. Not long ago, the U.S. began training citizens of the Republic of Georgia to fill the jobs of Iraqis in Baghdad. “I don’t know why it’s better to have these people flown into Iraq and secure them in the Green Zone,? a State Department official said. “Why wouldn’t we bring Iraqis into the Green Zone and give them housing and secure them?? He added, “We’re depriving people of jobs and we’re getting them whacked. It’s not a pretty picture.?

On June 6th, amid the exodus of Iraqis from the public-affairs section, an Embassy official sent a six-page cable to Washington whose subject line read “Public Affairs Staff Show Strains of Social Discord.? The cable described the nightmarish lives of the section’s Iraqi employees and the sectarian tensions rising among them. It was an astonishingly candid report, perhaps aimed at forcing the State Department to confront the growing disaster. The cable was leaked to the Washington Post and briefly became a political liability. One sentence has stuck in my mind: “A few staff members approached us to ask what provisions we would make for them if we evacuate.?

I went to Baghdad in January partly because I wanted to find an answer to this question. Were there contingency plans for Iraqis, and, if so, whom did they include, and would the Iraqis have to wait for a final American departure? Would any Iraqis be evacuated to the U.S.? No one at the Embassy was willing to speak on the record about Iraqi staff, except an official spokesman, Lou Fintor, who read me a statement: “Like all residents of Baghdad, our local employees must attempt to maintain their daily routines despite the disruptions caused by terrorists, extremists, and criminals. The new Iraqi government is taking steps to improve the security situation and essential services in Baghdad. The Iraq security forces, in coördination with coalition forces, are now engaged in a wide-range effort to stabilize the security situation in Baghdad. . . . President Bush strongly reaffirmed our commitment to work with the government of Iraq to answer the needs of all Iraqis.?

I was granted an interview with two officials, who refused to be named. One of them consulted talking points that catalogued what the Embassy had done for Iraqi employees: a Thanksgiving dinner, a recent thirty-five-per-cent salary increase. Housing in the Green Zone could be made available for a week at a time in critical cases, I was told, though most Iraqis didn’t want to be apart from their families. When I asked about contingency plans for evacuation, the second official refused to discuss it on security grounds, but he said, “If we reach that point and have people in danger, the Ambassador would go to the Secretary of State and ask that they be evacuated, and I think they would do it.? The department was reviewing the possibility of issuing special immigrant visas.

To receive this briefing, I had passed through three security doors into the Embassy’s classified section, where there were no Iraqis and no natural light; it seemed as if every molecule of Baghdad air had been sealed off behind the last security door. The Embassy officials struck me as decent, overworked people, yet I left the interview with a feeling of shame. The problem lay not with the individuals but with the institution and, beyond that, with the politics of the American project in Iraq, which from the beginning has been conducted under the illusion that controlling the message mattered more than the reality. A former official at the Embassy told me, “When we say that the corridors of power are insulated, is it that the officials aren’t receiving the information, or is it because the construct under which they’re operating doesn’t even allow them to absorb it?? To admit that Iraqis who work with Americans need to be evacuated would blow a hole in the Administration’s version of the war.

Several days after the interview at the Embassy, I had a more frank conversation with an official there. “I don’t know if it’s fair to say, ‘You work at an embassy of a foreign country, so that country has to evacuate you,’ ? he said. “Do the Australians have a plan? Do the Romanians? The Turks? The British?? He added, “If I worked at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, would the Hungarians evacuate me from the United States??

When I mentioned these remarks to Othman, he asked, “Would the Americans behead an American working at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington??


In the summer of 2006, Iraqis were fleeing the country at the rate of forty thousand per month. The educated middle class of Baghdad was decamping to Jordan and Syria, taking with them the skills and the more secular ideas necessary for rebuilding a destroyed society, leaving the city to the religious militias—eastern Baghdad was controlled by the poor and increasingly radical Shia, the western districts dominated by Sunni insurgents. House by house, the capital was being ethnically cleansed.

By that time, Firas, Ali, and Ahmed had been working with the Americans for several years. Their commitment and loyalty were beyond doubt. Just going to work in the morning required an extraordinary ability to disregard danger. Panic, Firas realized, could trap you: when the threat came, you felt you were a dead man no matter where you turned, and your mind froze and you sat at home waiting for them to come for you. In order to function, Firas simply blocked out the fear. “My friends at work became the only friends I have,? he said. “My entertainment is at work, my pleasure is at work, everything is at work.? Firas and his friends never imagined that the decision to leave Iraq would be forced on them not by the violence beyond the Green Zone but from within the Embassy itself.

After the bombing of the gold-domed Shia mosque in Samarra that February, Sadr City had become the base for the Mahdi Army’s roving death squads. Ahmed’s neighborhood fell under their complete control, and his drive to work took him through numerous unfriendly—and thorough—militia checkpoints. Strangers began to ask about him. A falafel vender in Sadr City whose stall was often surrounded by Mahdi Army alaasa warned Ahmed that his name had come up. On two occasions, people he scarcely knew approached him and expressed concern about his well-being. One evening, an American official named Oliver Moss, with whom Ahmed was close, walked him out of the Embassy to the parking lot and said, “Ahmed, I know you work for us, but if something happens to you we won’t be able to do anything for you.? Ahmed asked for a cot in a Green Zone trailer and was given the yes/no answer—equal parts personal sympathy and bureaucratic delay—which sometimes felt worse than a flat refusal. The chaos in Baghdad had created a landgrab for Green Zone accommodations, and the Iraqi government was distributing coveted apartments to friends of the political parties while evicting Iraqis who worked with the Americans. The interpreters were distrusted and despised even by officials of the new government that the Americans had helped bring to power.

In April, a Shiite member of the parliament asked Ahmed to look into the status of a Mahdi Army member who had been detained by the Americans. Iraqis at the Embassy sometimes used their office to do small favors for their compatriots; such gestures reminded them that they were serving Iraq as well as America. But Ahmed sent his inquiry through the wrong channel. His supervisor was on leave in the U.S., and so he sent an e-mail to a reserve colonel in the political section. The colonel refused to provide him with any information, and a couple of weeks later, in May, Ahmed was summoned to talk to an agent from the regional security office.

To the Iraqis, a summons of this type was frightening. Ahmed and his friends had seen several colleagues report to the regional security office and never appear at their desks again, with no explanation; one had been turned over to the Iraqi police and was jailed for several weeks. “Don’t go. They’re going to arrest you,? Ali told Ahmed. “Just quit. It’s not worth it.? Ahmed did not listen.

The agent, Barry Hale, who carried a Glock pistol, questioned Ahmed for an hour about his contacts with Sadrists. The notion that Ahmed’s job required him to have contact with the Mahdi Army seemed foreign to Hale, as did the need to have well-informed Iraqis in the political section of the Embassy. According to an American official close to the case, Hale had a general distrust of Iraqis and wanted to replace them with Jordanians. Another official spoke of a “paranoia partly founded on ignorance. If Ahmed wanted to hurt an American, he could have done it very easily in the three years he worked with us.?

Robert Ford, the political counsellor, spoke to top officials at the Embassy to insure that Ahmed—whom several Americans described as the best Iraqi employee they had worked with—would be “counselled? but not fired. Everyone assumed that the case was closed. But over the summer, after Ford’s service in Baghdad ended, Hale started to pursue Ahmed again. “It was a witch hunt,? one of the officials said. “They wanted to fire him and they were just looking for a reason. They decided he was a threat.? The irony of his situation was not lost on Ahmed: he was suspected of giving information to a militia that would kill him instantly if they knew where he worked.

In late July, Hale summoned Ahmed again. On Hale’s desk, Ahmed saw a thick file marked “Secret,? next to a pair of steel handcuffs.

“Did you ever get a phone call from the Mahdi Army?? Hale asked.

“I’ll be lucky if I get a phone call from them,? Ahmed replied. “My supervisor will be very happy.?

The interrogation came down to one point: Hale insisted that Ahmed had misled him by saying that the reserve colonel had “never answered? Ahmed’s inquiry, when in fact the colonel had sent back an e-mail asking who had given Ahmed the detainee’s name. Ahmed hadn’t considered this an answer to his question about the detainee’s status, and therefore hadn’t mentioned it to Hale. This was his undoing.

When Ahmed returned to his desk, Firas and Ali embraced him and congratulated him on escaping detention. Meanwhile, lower-ranking Embassy officials began frantically calling and e-mailing colleagues in Washington, some of whom tried to intervene on Ahmed’s behalf. But by then it was too late. The new Ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, and his deputy were out of the country, and the official in charge of the Embassy was Ford’s replacement, Margaret Scobey, a new arrival in Baghdad, who had no idea of Ahmed’s value. Firas said of her, “She was really not into the Iraqis in the office.? Some Americans and Iraqis described her as a notetaker for the Ambassador who sent oddly upbeat reports back to Washington. Two days after the second interrogation, Scobey signed off on Ahmed’s termination, and ordered a junior officer named Rebecca Fong to go down to Ahmed’s office and, in front of his tearful American and Iraqi colleagues, fire him.

Ahmed later told an American official, “I think the U.S. is still in a war. I don’t think you’re going to win this war if you don’t win the hearts of your allies.? The State Department refused to discuss the case for reasons of privacy and security.

Ahmed’s firing demoralized Americans and Iraqis alike. Fong transferred out of the political section. For Firas, it meant that, no matter how long he worked with the Americans and how many risks he took, he, too, would ultimately be discarded. He began to tell himself, “My turn is coming, my turn is coming?—a perverse echo of his mantra before the fall of Saddam. The Iraqis now felt that, as Ali said, “Heaven doesn’t want us and Hell doesn’t want us. Where will we go?? If the Americans were turning against them, they had no friends at all.

Three days after Ahmed’s departure, Scobey appeared in the Iraqis’ office to say that she was sorry but there was nothing she could have done for Ahmed. Firas listened in disgust before bursting out, “All the sacrifices, all the work, all the devotion mean nothing to you. We are still terrorists in your eyes.? When, a month later, Khalilzad met with a large group of Iraqi employees to hear their concerns, Firas attended reluctantly. After the Iraqis raised the possibility of immigrant visas to the U.S., Khalilzad said, “We want the good Iraqi people to stay in the country.? An Iraqi replied, “If we’re still alive.? Firas, speaking last, told the Ambassador, “We are tense all the time, we don’t know what we are doing, right or wrong. Some Iraqis are more afraid in the Embassy than in the Red Zone?—that is, Baghdad. There was a ripple of laughter among the Iraqis, and Khalilzad couldn’t suppress a smile.

At this point, Firas knew that he would leave Iraq. Through the efforts of Rebecca Fong and Oliver Moss—who pulled strings with counterparts in European embassies in Baghdad—Ahmed, Firas, and Ali obtained visas to Europe. By November, they were gone.


On the morning of October 13th, an Iraqi official with U.S.A.I.D. named Yaghdan left his house in western Baghdad, in search of fuel for his generator. He saw a scrap of paper lying by the garage door. It was a torn sheet of copybook paper—the kind that his agency distributed to schools around Iraq, with date and subject lines printed in English and Arabic. The paper bore a message, in Arabic: “We will cut off heads and throw them in the garbage.? Nearby, against the garden fence, lay the severed upper half of a small dog.

Yaghdan (who wanted his real name used) was a mild, conscientious thirty-year-old from a family of struggling businessmen. Since taking a job with the Americans, in 2003, he had been so cautious that, at first, he couldn’t imagine how his cover had been blown. Then he remembered: Two weeks earlier, as he was showing his badge at the bridge offering entry into the Green Zone, Yaghdan had noticed a man from his neighborhood standing in the same line, watching him. The neighbor worked as a special guard with a Shia militia and must have been the alaas who betrayed him.

Yaghdan’s request for a transfer to a post outside the country was never answered. Instead, U.S.A.I.D. offered him a month’s leave with pay or residence for six months in the agency compound in the Green Zone, which would have meant a long separation from his young wife. Yaghdan said, “I thought, I should not be selfish and put myself as a priority. It wasn’t a happy decision.? Within a week of the threat, Yaghdan and his wife flew to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

Yaghdan sent his résumé to several companies in Dubai, highlighting his years of service with an American contractor and U.S.A.I.D. He got a call from a legal office that needed an administrative assistant. “Did you work in the U.S.?? the interviewer asked him. Yaghdan said that his work had been in Iraq. “Oh, in Iraq . . .? He could feel the interviewer pulling back. A man at another office said, “Oh, you worked against Saddam? You betrayed Saddam? The American people are stealing Iraq.? Yaghdan, who is not given to bitterness, finally lost his cool: “No, the Arab people are stealing Iraq!? He didn’t get the job. He was amazed—even in cosmopolitan Dubai, people loved Saddam, especially after his botched execution, in late December. Yaghdan’s résumé was an encumbrance. Iraqis were considered bad Arabs, and Iraqis who worked with the Americans were traitors. The slogans and illusions of Arab nationalism, which had seemed to collapse with the regime of Saddam, were being given a second life by the American failure in Iraq. What hurt Yaghdan most was the looks that said, “You trusted the Americans—and see what happened to you.?

Yaghdan then contacted many American companies, thinking that they, at least, would look favorably on his service. He wasn’t granted a single interview. The only work he could find was as a gofer in the office of a Dubai cleaning company.

Yaghdan’s Emirates visa expired in mid-January, and he had to leave the country and renew the visa in Amman. I met him there. The Jordanians had been turning away young Iraqis at the border and the airport for several months, but they issued Yaghdan and his wife three-day visas, after which they had to pay a daily fine, on top of hotel bills. After a week’s delay, the visas came through, but, upon returning to Dubai, Yaghdan learned that the Emirates would no longer extend the visas of Iraqis. A job offer as an administrative assistant came from a university in Qatar, but the Qataris wouldn’t grant him a visa without a security clearance from the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which was in the hands of the Shia party whose militia had sent him the death threat. He couldn’t even become a refugee, which would have given him some protection against deportation, because the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had closed its Emirates office years ago. Yaghdan had heard that the only way to get a U.S. visa was through a job offer—nearly impossible to obtain—or by marrying an American, so he didn’t bother to try. He had reached the end of his legal options and would have to return to Iraq by April 1st. “It’s like taking the decision to commit suicide,? he said.

While Yaghdan was in Dubai, news of his dilemma made its way through the U.S.A.I.D. grapevine to Kirk Johnson, the young Arabic speaker who had asked to be transferred to Falluja. By then, Johnson’s life had been turned upside down as well.

In Falluja, Johnson had supervised Iraqis who were clearing out blocked irrigation canals along the Euphrates River. His job was dangerous and seldom rewarding, but it gave him the sense of purpose that he had sought in Iraq. Determined to experience as much as possible, he went out several times a week in a Marine convoy to meet tribal sheikhs and local officials. As he rode through Falluja’s lethal streets, Johnson eyed every bag of trash and parked car for hidden bombs, and practiced swatting away imaginary grenades. After a local sniper shot several marines, Johnson’s anxiety rose even higher.

In December, 2005, after twelve exhausting months in Iraq, during which he lost forty pounds, Johnson went on leave and met his parents for a Christmas vacation in the Dominican Republic. In the middle of the night, Johnson rose unconscious from his hotel bed and climbed onto a ledge outside the second-floor window. A night watchman noticed him staring at an unfinished concrete apartment complex across the road. The night before, the sight of the building had triggered his fear of the sniper, and he had instinctively dropped to the floor of his room. Standing on the ledge, he shouted something and then fell fifteen feet.

Johnson tore open his jaw and forehead and broke his nose, teeth, and wrists. He required numerous surgeries on his shattered face, and stayed in the hospital for several weeks. But it was much longer before he could accept that he would not rejoin the marines and Iraqis he had left in Falluja. There were rumors in Iraq that he had been drunk and was trying to avoid returning. Back home in Illinois, healing in his childhood bed, he dreamed every night that he was in Iraq, unable to save people, or else in mortal peril himself.

In January, 2006, Paul Bremer came through Chicago to promote his book, “My Year in Iraq.? Johnson sat in one of the front rows, ready to challenge Bremer’s upbeat version of the reconstruction, but during the question period Bremer avoided the young man with the bandaged face who was frantically waving his arms, which were still in casts.

Johnson moved to Boston, but he kept thinking about his failure to return to Iraq. One day, he heard the news about Yaghdan, whom he had known in Baghdad, and that night h

November 26, 2007

Reflections on a Violent Art Project

Chicago Artist Wafaa Bilal spent 31 days, from May to June, of this year locked in a room being shot at by strangers. The strangers were virtual, operating a paintball gun, and Bilal had no idea who they were or why they were shooting. He called his exhibit "Domestic Tension." Bilal is an Iraqi who fled Saddam's regime in 1991. His father and younger brother were killed in the current Iraq war. We talked to him during his stay in the exhibit, and then we caught up with him a month after he was free. We asked Bilal what he learned since being a marked target, and what life is like now.

Produced by Suzie Lechtenberg

Wafaa Bilal: It's really tough. Since the project ended, I haven't had much of sleep. Even if I get a few hours of sleep a night that would be accompanied with many nightmares. And sometimes I would get up and start looking for the gun or I'm confused why I am in my bedroom and not in the project room.

Bill Radke: You say that you have had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder before. You went through a lot in Iraq and in Saudi Arabia. Your brother was killed in Najaf. How are you reflecting back on the violence you went through before this paintball experiment?

Well, I was dealing with Post Traumatic for many many years. So the new experience, unfortunately, bringing everything back. One thing I wanted to come out of this project is to bring me closer to my family and bring me closer to home. It did and it became very painful experience. But overall I think this experience left me feeling closer to home and I think it illustrate a point to viewers: this is what the Iraqis are going through on everyday.

How do you know how well you got that point across to your viewers, your participants, your shooters?

I have a person from Ohio who one day sat on the computer and continued shooting and took about 2,000 shots. And there is no way I could stop him so I simply told him "Hey, I am having my dinner and the paintballs they are falling in my soup." And he said "Ouch, I'm really sorry." And he become one of the biggest fan in the project.

This guy who was stalking and assaulting you, that's what made him stop?


What do you think was going on there?

Well, in most of the world, politician do very good job in demonizing others. And in that process we lack understanding of each other and we shut any way of communication to each other. And it's amazing, I find in this project, words have much more effect and they hurt more as well.

So after being shot at tens of thousands of time and had some people try to protect you, what do you come away with, Wafaa?

It really enforces my belief in humanity.

So you're focusing on the man who wanted to stop dumping paintballs in your soup.

Absolutely. But overall I don't ever remember crying this hard. And I accept it for the first time. I lost my brother and I lost my father and I would never see them again.

What was it that got you to that place? Do you remember what was happening in the room?

It was a simple thing. I had a mechanical problem with the gun and all of a sudden, silent. And it make me think, the Iraqis have been under assault for so many years, what is going to happen to them when the gun is silent. This is a story of a person, but there is a story of a nation to come. And it's going to take a long time to heal. And that is the same thing apply to the American soldiers in Iraq. The gun is loud now there. But I am very afraid, in fact I'm terrified, what is going to happen when they come back.

Check out Wafaa Bilal's show (including a video blog) at this site:

October 10, 2007

Shifting Targets: The Administration's Plan for Iran

Shifting Targets
The Administration’s plan for Iran.
by Seymour M. Hersh October 8, 2007
The New Yorker

In a series of public statements in recent months, President Bush and members of his Administration have redefined the war in Iraq, to an increasing degree, as a strategic battle between the United States and Iran. “Shia extremists, backed by Iran, are training Iraqis to carry out attacks on our forces and the Iraqi people,? Bush told the national convention of the American Legion in August. “The attacks on our bases and our troops by Iranian-supplied munitions have increased. . . . The Iranian regime must halt these actions. And, until it does, I will take actions necessary to protect our troops.? He then concluded, to applause, “I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran’s murderous activities.?

The President’s position, and its corollary—that, if many of America’s problems in Iraq are the responsibility of Tehran, then the solution to them is to confront the Iranians—have taken firm hold in the Administration. This summer, the White House, pushed by the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney, requested that the Joint Chiefs of Staff redraw long-standing plans for a possible attack on Iran, according to former officials and government consultants. The focus of the plans had been a broad bombing attack, with targets including Iran’s known and suspected nuclear facilities and other military and infrastructure sites. Now the emphasis is on “surgical? strikes on Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities in Tehran and elsewhere, which, the Administration claims, have been the source of attacks on Americans in Iraq. What had been presented primarily as a counter-proliferation mission has been reconceived as counterterrorism.

The shift in targeting reflects three developments. First, the President and his senior advisers have concluded that their campaign to convince the American public that Iran poses an imminent nuclear threat has failed (unlike a similar campaign before the Iraq war), and that as a result there is not enough popular support for a major bombing campaign. The second development is that the White House has come to terms, in private, with the general consensus of the American intelligence community that Iran is at least five years away from obtaining a bomb. And, finally, there has been a growing recognition in Washington and throughout the Middle East that Iran is emerging as the geopolitical winner of the war in Iraq.

During a secure videoconference that took place early this summer, the President told Ryan Crocker, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, that he was thinking of hitting Iranian targets across the border and that the British “were on board.? At that point, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice interjected that there was a need to proceed carefully, because of the ongoing diplomatic track. Bush ended by instructing Crocker to tell Iran to stop interfering in Iraq or it would face American retribution.

At a White House meeting with Cheney this summer, according to a former senior intelligence official, it was agreed that, if limited strikes on Iran were carried out, the Administration could fend off criticism by arguing that they were a defensive action to save soldiers in Iraq. If Democrats objected, the Administration could say, “Bill Clinton did the same thing; he conducted limited strikes in Afghanistan, the Sudan, and in Baghdad to protect American lives.? The former intelligence official added, “There is a desperate effort by Cheney et al. to bring military action to Iran as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the politicians are saying, ‘You can’t do it, because every Republican is going to be defeated, and we’re only one fact from going over the cliff in Iraq.’ But Cheney doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the Republican worries, and neither does the President.?

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said, “The President has made it clear that the United States government remains committed to a diplomatic solution with respect to Iran. The State Department is working diligently along with the international community to address our broad range of concerns.? (The White House declined to comment.)

I was repeatedly cautioned, in interviews, that the President has yet to issue the “execute order? that would be required for a military operation inside Iran, and such an order may never be issued. But there has been a significant increase in the tempo of attack planning. In mid-August, senior officials told reporters that the Administration intended to declare Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization. And two former senior officials of the C.I.A. told me that, by late summer, the agency had increased the size and the authority of the Iranian Operations Group. (A spokesman for the agency said, “The C.I.A. does not, as a rule, publicly discuss the relative size of its operational components.?)

“They’re moving everybody to the Iran desk,? one recently retired C.I.A. official said. “They’re dragging in a lot of analysts and ramping up everything. It’s just like the fall of 2002?—the months before the invasion of Iraq, when the Iraqi Operations Group became the most important in the agency. He added, “The guys now running the Iranian program have limited direct experience with Iran. In the event of an attack, how will the Iranians react? They will react, and the Administration has not thought it all the way through.?

That theme was echoed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national-security adviser, who said that he had heard discussions of the White House’s more limited bombing plans for Iran. Brzezinski said that Iran would likely react to an American attack “by intensifying the conflict in Iraq and also in Afghanistan, their neighbors, and that could draw in Pakistan. We will be stuck in a regional war for twenty years.?

In a speech at the United Nations last week, Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was defiant. He referred to America as an “aggressor? state, and said, “How can the incompetents who cannot even manage and control themselves rule humanity and arrange its affairs? Unfortunately, they have put themselves in the position of God.? (The day before, at Columbia, he suggested that the facts of the Holocaust still needed to be determined.)

“A lot depends on how stupid the Iranians will be,? Brzezinski told me. “Will they cool off Ahmadinejad and tone down their language?? The Bush Administration, by charging that Iran was interfering in Iraq, was aiming “to paint it as ‘We’re responding to what is an intolerable situation,’ ? Brzezinski said. “This time, unlike the attack in Iraq, we’re going to play the victim. The name of our game seems to be to get the Iranians to overplay their hand.?

General David Petraeus, the commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, in his report to Congress in September, buttressed the Administration’s case against Iran. “None of us, earlier this year, appreciated the extent of Iranian involvement in Iraq, something about which we and Iraq’s leaders all now have greater concern,? he said. Iran, Petraeus said, was fighting “a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq.?

Iran has had a presence in Iraq for decades; the extent and the purpose of its current activities there are in dispute, however. During Saddam Hussein’s rule, when the Sunni-dominated Baath Party brutally oppressed the majority Shiites, Iran supported them. Many in the present Iraqi Shiite leadership, including prominent members of the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, spent years in exile in Iran; last week, at the Council on Foreign Relations, Maliki said, according to the Washington Post, that Iraq’s relations with the Iranians had “improved to the point that they are not interfering in our internal affairs.? Iran is so entrenched in Iraqi Shiite circles that any “proxy war? could be as much through the Iraqi state as against it. The crux of the Bush Administration’s strategic dilemma is that its decision to back a Shiite-led government after the fall of Saddam has empowered Iran, and made it impossible to exclude Iran from the Iraqi political scene.

Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, who is an expert on Iran and Shiism, told me, “Between 2003 and 2006, the Iranians thought they were closest to the United States on the issue of Iraq.? The Iraqi Shia religious leadership encouraged Shiites to avoid confrontation with American soldiers and to participate in elections—believing that a one-man, one-vote election process could only result in a Shia-dominated government. Initially, the insurgency was mainly Sunni, especially Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Nasr told me that Iran’s policy since 2003 has been to provide funding, arms, and aid to several Shiite factions—including some in Maliki’s coalition. The problem, Nasr said, is that “once you put the arms on the ground you cannot control how they’re used later.?

In the Shiite view, the White House “only looks at Iran’s ties to Iraq in terms of security,? Nasr said. “Last year, over one million Iranians travelled to Iraq on pilgrimages, and there is more than a billion dollars a year in trading between the two countries. But the Americans act as if every Iranian inside Iraq were there to import weapons.?

Many of those who support the President’s policy argue that Iran poses an imminent threat. In a recent essay in Commentary, Norman Podhoretz depicted President Ahmadinejad as a revolutionary, “like Hitler . . . whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it . . . with a new order dominated by Iran. . . . [T]he plain and brutal truth is that if Iran is to be prevented from developing a nuclear arsenal, there is no alternative to the actual use of military force.? Podhoretz concluded, “I pray with all my heart? that President Bush “will find it possible to take the only action that can stop Iran from following through on its evil intentions both toward us and toward Israel.? Podhoretz recently told that he had met with the President for about forty-five minutes to urge him to take military action against Iran, and believed that “Bush is going to hit? Iran before leaving office. (Podhoretz, one of the founders of neoconservatism, is a strong backer of Rudolph Giuliani’s Presidential campaign, and his son-in-law, Elliott Abrams, is a senior adviser to President Bush on national security.)

In early August, Army Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, told the Times about an increase in attacks involving explosively formed penetrators, a type of lethal bomb that discharges a semi-molten copper slug that can rip through the armor of Humvees. The Times reported that U.S. intelligence and technical analyses indicated that Shiite militias had obtained the bombs from Iran. Odierno said that Iranians had been “surging support? over the past three or four months.

Questions remain, however, about the provenance of weapons in Iraq, especially given the rampant black market in arms. David Kay, a former C.I.A. adviser and the chief weapons inspector in Iraq for the United Nations, told me that his inspection team was astonished, in the aftermath of both Iraq wars, by “the huge amounts of arms? it found circulating among civilians and military personnel throughout the country. He recalled seeing stockpiles of explosively formed penetrators, as well as charges that had been recovered from unexploded American cluster bombs. Arms had also been supplied years ago by the Iranians to their Shiite allies in southern Iraq who had been persecuted by the Baath Party.

“I thought Petraeus went way beyond what Iran is doing inside Iraq today,? Kay said. “When the White House started its anti-Iran campaign, six months ago, I thought it was all craziness. Now it does look like there is some selective smuggling by Iran, but much of it has been in response to American pressure and American threats—more a ‘shot across the bow’ sort of thing, to let Washington know that it was not going to get away with its threats so freely. Iran is not giving the Iraqis the good stuff—the anti-aircraft missiles that can shoot down American planes and its advanced anti-tank weapons.?

Another element of the Administration’s case against Iran is the presence of Iranian agents in Iraq. General Petraeus, testifying before Congress, said that a commando faction of the Revolutionary Guards was seeking to turn its allies inside Iraq into a “Hezbollah-like force to serve its interests.? In August, Army Major General Rick Lynch, the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, told reporters in Baghdad that his troops were tracking some fifty Iranian men sent by the Revolutionary Guards who were training Shiite insurgents south of Baghdad. “We know they’re here and we target them as well,? he said.

Patrick Clawson, an expert on Iran at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me that “there are a lot of Iranians at any time inside Iraq, including those doing intelligence work and those doing humanitarian missions. It would be prudent for the Administration to produce more evidence of direct military training—or produce fighters captured in Iraq who had been trained in Iran.? He added, “It will be important for the Iraqi government to be able to state that they were unaware of this activity?; otherwise, given the intense relationship between the Iraqi Shiite leadership and Tehran, the Iranians could say that “they had been asked by the Iraqi government to train these people.? (In late August, American troops raided a Baghdad hotel and arrested a group of Iranians. They were a delegation from Iran’s energy ministry, and had been invited to Iraq by the Maliki government; they were later released.)

“If you want to attack, you have to prepare the groundwork, and you have to be prepared to show the evidence,? Clawson said. Adding to the complexity, he said, is a question that seems almost counterintuitive: “What is the attitude of Iraq going to be if we hit Iran? Such an attack could put a strain on the Iraqi government.?

A senior European diplomat, who works closely with American intelligence, told me that there is evidence that Iran has been making extensive preparation for an American bombing attack. “We know that the Iranians are strengthening their air-defense capabilities,? he said, “and we believe they will react asymmetrically—hitting targets in Europe and in Latin America.? There is also specific intelligence suggesting that Iran will be aided in these attacks by Hezbollah. “Hezbollah is capable, and they can do it,? the diplomat said.

In interviews with current and former officials, there were repeated complaints about the paucity of reliable information. A former high-level C.I.A. official said that the intelligence about who is doing what inside Iran “is so thin that nobody even wants his name on it. This is the problem.?

The difficulty of determining who is responsible for the chaos in Iraq can be seen in Basra, in the Shiite south, where British forces had earlier presided over a relatively secure area. Over the course of this year, however, the region became increasingly ungovernable, and by fall the British had retreated to fixed bases. A European official who has access to current intelligence told me that “there is a firm belief inside the American and U.K. intelligence community that Iran is supporting many of the groups in southern Iraq that are responsible for the deaths of British and American soldiers. Weapons and money are getting in from Iran. They have been able to penetrate many groups?—primarily the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias.

A June, 2007, report by the International Crisis Group found, however, that Basra’s renewed instability was mainly the result of “the systematic abuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighborhood vigilantism and enforcement of social mores, together with the rise of criminal mafias.? The report added that leading Iraqi politicians and officials “routinely invoke the threat of outside interference?—from bordering Iran—“to justify their behavior or evade responsibility for their failures.?

Earlier this year, before the surge in U.S. troops, the American command in Baghdad changed what had been a confrontational policy in western Iraq, the Sunni heartland (and the base of the Baathist regime), and began working with the Sunni tribes, including some tied to the insurgency. Tribal leaders are now getting combat support as well as money, intelligence, and arms, ostensibly to fight Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Empowering Sunni forces may undermine efforts toward national reconciliation, however. Already, tens of thousands of Shiites have fled Anbar Province, many to Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, while Sunnis have been forced from their homes in Shiite communities. Vali Nasr, of Tufts, called the internal displacement of communities in Iraq a form of “ethnic cleansing.?

“The American policy of supporting the Sunnis in western Iraq is making the Shia leadership very nervous,? Nasr said. “The White House makes it seem as if the Shia were afraid only of Al Qaeda—but they are afraid of the Sunni tribesmen we are arming. The Shia attitude is ‘So what if you’re getting rid of Al Qaeda?’ The problem of Sunni resistance is still there. The Americans believe they can distinguish between good and bad insurgents, but the Shia don’t share that distinction. For the Shia, they are all one adversary.?

Nasr went on, “The United States is trying to fight on all sides—Sunni and Shia—and be friends with all sides.? In the Shiite view, “It’s clear that the United States cannot bring security to Iraq, because it is not doing everything necessary to bring stability. If they did, they would talk to anybody to achieve it—even Iran and Syria,? Nasr said. (Such engagement was a major recommendation of the Iraq Study Group.) “America cannot bring stability in Iraq by fighting Iran in Iraq.?

The revised bombing plan for a possible attack, with its tightened focus on counterterrorism, is gathering support among generals and admirals in the Pentagon. The strategy calls for the use of sea-launched cruise missiles and more precisely targeted ground attacks and bombing strikes, including plans to destroy the most important Revolutionary Guard training camps, supply depots, and command and control facilities.

“Cheney’s option is now for a fast in and out—for surgical strikes,? the former senior American intelligence official told me. The Joint Chiefs have turned to the Navy, he said, which had been chafing over its role in the Air Force-dominated air war in Iraq. “The Navy’s planes, ships, and cruise missiles are in place in the Gulf and operating daily. They’ve got everything they need—even AWACS are in place and the targets in Iran have been programmed. The Navy is flying FA-18 missions every day in the Gulf.? There are also plans to hit Iran’s anti-aircraft surface-to-air missile sites. “We’ve got to get a path in and a path out,? the former official said.

A Pentagon consultant on counterterrorism told me that, if the bombing campaign took place, it would be accompanied by a series of what he called “short, sharp incursions? by American Special Forces units into suspected Iranian training sites. He said, “Cheney is devoted to this, no question.?

A limited bombing attack of this sort “only makes sense if the intelligence is good,? the consultant said. If the targets are not clearly defined, the bombing “will start as limited, but then there will be an ‘escalation special.’ Planners will say that we have to deal with Hezbollah here and Syria there. The goal will be to hit the cue ball one time and have all the balls go in the pocket. But add-ons are always there in strike planning.?

The surgical-strike plan has been shared with some of America’s allies, who have had mixed reactions to it. Israel’s military and political leaders were alarmed, believing, the consultant said, that it didn’t sufficiently target Iran’s nuclear facilities. The White House has been reassuring the Israeli government, the former senior official told me, that the more limited target list would still serve the goal of counter-proliferation by decapitating the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards, who are believed to have direct control over the nuclear-research program. “Our theory is that if we do the attacks as planned it will accomplish two things,? the former senior official said.

An Israeli official said, “Our main focus has been the Iranian nuclear facilities, not because other things aren’t important. We’ve worked on missile technology and terrorism, but we see the Iranian nuclear issue as one that cuts across everything.? Iran, he added, does not need to develop an actual warhead to be a threat. “Our problems begin when they learn and master the nuclear fuel cycle and when they have the nuclear materials,? he said. There was, for example, the possibility of a “dirty bomb,? or of Iran’s passing materials to terrorist groups. “There is still time for diplomacy to have an impact, but not a lot,? the Israeli official said. “We believe the technological timetable is moving faster than the diplomatic timetable. And if diplomacy doesn’t work, as they say, all options are on the table.?

The bombing plan has had its most positive reception from the newly elected government of Britain’s Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. A senior European official told me, “The British perception is that the Iranians are not making the progress they want to see in their nuclear-enrichment processing. All the intelligence community agree that Iran is providing critical assistance, training, and technology to a surprising number of terrorist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, through Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine, too.?

There were four possible responses to this Iranian activity, the European official said: to do nothing (“There would be no retaliation to the Iranians for their attacks; this would be sending the wrong signal?); to publicize the Iranian actions (“There is one great difficulty with this option—the widespread lack of faith in American intelligence assessments?); to attack the Iranians operating inside Iraq (“We’ve been taking action since last December, and it does have an effect?); or, finally, to attack inside Iran.

The European official continued, “A major air strike against Iran could well lead to a rallying around the flag there, but a very careful targeting of terrorist training camps might not.? His view, he said, was that “once the Iranians get a bloody nose they rethink things.? For example, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and Ali Larijani, two of Iran’s most influential political figures, “might go to the Supreme Leader and say, ‘The hard-line policies have got us into this mess. We must change our approach for the sake of the regime.’ ?

A retired American four-star general with close ties to the British military told me that there was another reason for Britain’s interest—shame over the failure of the Royal Navy to protect the sailors and Royal Marines who were seized by Iran on March 23rd, in the Persian Gulf. “The professional guys are saying that British honor is at stake, and if there’s another event like that in the water off Iran the British will hit back,? he said.

The revised bombing plan “could work—if it’s in response to an Iranian attack,? the retired four-star general said. “The British may want to do it to get even, but the more reasonable people are saying, ‘Let’s do it if the Iranians stage a cross-border attack inside Iraq.’ It’s got to be ten dead American soldiers and four burned trucks.? There is, he added, “a widespread belief in London that Tony Blair’s government was sold a bill of goods by the White House in the buildup to the war against Iraq. So if somebody comes into Gordon Brown’s office and says, ‘We have this intelligence from America,’ Brown will ask, ‘Where did it come from? Have we verified it?’ The burden of proof is high.?

The French government shares the Administration’s sense of urgency about Iran’s nuclear program, and believes that Iran will be able to produce a warhead within two years. France’s newly elected President, Nicolas Sarkozy, created a stir in late August when he warned that Iran could be attacked if it did not halt its nuclear program. Nonetheless, France has indicated to the White House that it has doubts about a limited strike, the former senior intelligence official told me. Many in the French government have concluded that the Bush Administration has exaggerated the extent of Iranian meddling inside Iraq; they believe, according to a European diplomat, that “the American problems in Iraq are due to their own mistakes, and now the Americans are trying to show some teeth. An American bombing will show only that the Bush Administration has its own agenda toward Iran.?

A European intelligence official made a similar point. “If you attack Iran,? he told me, “and do not label it as being against Iran’s nuclear facilities, it will strengthen the regime, and help to make the Islamic air in the Middle East thicker.?

Ahmadinejad, in his speech at the United Nations, said that Iran considered the dispute over its nuclear program “closed.? Iran would deal with it only through the International Atomic Energy Agency, he said, and had decided to “disregard unlawful and political impositions of the arrogant powers.? He added, in a press conference after the speech, “the decisions of the United States and France are not important.?

The director general of the I.A.E.A., Mohamed ElBaradei, has for years been in an often bitter public dispute with the Bush Administration; the agency’s most recent report found that Iran was far less proficient in enriching uranium than expected. A diplomat in Vienna, where the I.A.E.A. is based, said, “The Iranians are years away from making a bomb, as ElBaradei has said all along. Running three thousand centrifuges does not make a bomb.? The diplomat added, referring to hawks in the Bush Administration, “They don’t like ElBaradei, because they are in a state of denial. And now their negotiating policy has failed, and Iran is still enriching uranium and still making progress.?

The diplomat expressed the bitterness that has marked the I.A.E.A.’s dealings with the Bush Administration since the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “The White House’s claims were all a pack of lies, and Mohamed is dismissive of those lies,? the diplomat said.

Hans Blix, a former head of the I.A.E.A., questioned the Bush Administration’s commitment to diplomacy. “There are important cards that Washington could play; instead, they have three aircraft carriers sitting in the Persian Gulf,? he said. Speaking of Iran’s role in Iraq, Blix added, “My impression is that the United States has been trying to push up the accusations against Iran as a basis for a possible attack—as an excuse for jumping on them.?

The Iranian leadership is feeling the pressure. In the press conference after his U.N. speech, Ahmadinejad was asked about a possible attack. “They want to hurt us,? he said, “but, with the will of God, they won’t be able to do it.? According to a former State Department adviser on Iran, the Iranians complained, in diplomatic meetings in Baghdad with Ambassador Crocker, about a refusal by the Bush Administration to take advantage of their knowledge of the Iraqi political scene. The former adviser said, “They’ve been trying to convey to the United States that ‘We can help you in Iraq. Nobody knows Iraq better than us.’ ? Instead, the Iranians are preparing for an American attack.

The adviser said that he had heard from a source in Iran that the Revolutionary Guards have been telling religious leaders that they can stand up to an American attack. “The Guards are claiming that they can infiltrate American security,? the adviser said. “They are bragging that they have spray-painted an American warship—to signal the Americans that they can get close to them.? (I was told by the former senior intelligence official that there was an unexplained incident, this spring, in which an American warship was spray-painted with a bull’s-eye while docked in Qatar, which may have been the source of the boasts.)

“Do you think those crazies in Tehran are going to say, ‘Uncle Sam is here! We’d better stand down’? ? the former senior intelligence official said. “The reality is an attack will make things ten times warmer.?

Another recent incident, in Afghanistan, reflects the tension over intelligence. In July, the London Telegraph reported that what appeared to be an SA-7 shoulder-launched missile was fired at an American C-130 Hercules aircraft. The missile missed its mark. Months earlier, British commandos had intercepted a few truckloads of weapons, including one containing a working SA-7 missile, coming across the Iranian border. But there was no way of determining whether the missile fired at the C-130 had come from Iran—especially since SA-7s are available through black-market arms dealers.

Vincent Cannistraro, a retired C.I.A. officer who has worked closely with his counterparts in Britain, added to the story: “The Brits told me that they were afraid at first to tell us about the incident—in fear that Cheney would use it as a reason to attack Iran.? The intelligence subsequently was forwarded, he said.

The retired four-star general confirmed that British intelligence “was worried? about passing the information along. “The Brits don’t trust the Iranians,? the retired general said, “but they also don’t trust Bush and Cheney.? ♦

January 18, 2007

As Hundreds Die in an Oil Pipeline Explosion in Lagos, A Look At the Fight Over Nigeria's Natural Resources

Tuesday, December 26th, 2006
Sandy Cioffi, the director of the film "Sweet Crude," joins us in New York just hours after she returned from Nigeria. She talks about how the popular resistance movement in the Niger Delta continues to fight multinational oil companies for control of the country's natural wealth. [includes rush transcript]

In Nigeria up to 500 people have died after an oil pipeline exploded earlier this morning in the country's commercial capital of Lagos. It is feared the final death toll could be much higher.
The explosion comes at a time when tension has been rising -- especially in the Niger Delta -- over who controls the region's vast natural resources. Nigeria is Africa's largest oil producer and the United States' 5th largest oil supplier.

Last week, two car bombs exploded outside an oil company compound. On Saturday a car bomb exploded outside the state governor's office in Port Harcourt. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta or MEND claimed responsibility for the bombing. In an email to the press, the group stated that governors in the Niger delta and other political figures "have acted against the interest of the people of the Niger delta, sabotaging all efforts at resource control for selfish reasons.?

Saturday was the first time MEND has targeted a government building in over a year, the group has kidnapped foreign oil workers and occupied pumping stations run by multinational oil companies. MEND has also held four foreign oil workers hostage since December 7th. The group has said the hostages will not be released until the government releases two jailed leaders from the Delta, gives compensation to villagers for oil pollution, transfers control of oil resources to local communities and provides reparations for 50 years of enslavement by the oil industry.

In a minute I'll be joined by Sandy Cioffi -- She is a documentary filmmaker who just returned from Nigeria. But first – here's an excerpt from Sandy's documentary, "Sweet Crude," a film about the Niger Delta.

"Sweet Crude"
An excerpt from "Sweet Crude" directed by Sandy Cioffi who joins me now in the studio - Sandy is also a professor in the film and video communications department at Central Community College in Seattle, Washington and has just returned from Nigeria.
Sandy Cioffi, documentary filmmaker, Director of "Sweet Crude" a film about the Niger Delta. Sandy is also a professor in the film and video communications department at Central Community College in Seattle, Washington. She just returned from Nigeria.
This transcript is available free of charge. However, donations help us provide closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing on our TV broadcast. Thank you for your generous contribution.
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AMY GOODMAN: In a minute, we’ll be joined by Sandy Cioffi. She’s a documentary filmmaker who returned last night from Nigeria. But first, this is an excerpt of the trailer of Sandy’s documentary Sweet Crude, a film about the Niger Delta.

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 1: The effect of the oil pollution on the water, too. You be seeing it floating on the river, OK? So people cannot drink this water, and because of the floating effect of this oil that is on the surface, it kills the marine life and the aquatic life. And so, you see that people cannot even fish. People cannot do anything. Their livelihood is being destroyed.

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 2: When you lose everything, you lose the environment, you lose everything. You lose your land. You lose the facility. You lose the health of the land. What do you have left?

Telling people the way forward, and the way forward is peace and prosperity and partnership.

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 3: We will come together as educated and learned people with the support of [inaudible] people here, who can move forward.

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 2: We’re not talking about partnership in terms of the Niger Delta. I speak about the people, the people in the communities, including the women I’ve spoken with, the youths.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The students are out on their march this morning through town, and they’ve got placards. One of them says “Obasanjo? -- which is the president of Nigeria -- “Obasanjo out of oil resource control.? One of them says, “South-South movement for resource control supported by students.?

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 3: Could this peace process be real? Is it real?

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 4: We’ve had some very violent inter-ethnic strife in the area, and when I say violent, I mean really violent. So there are some communities that are no longer in existence, because they’ve been burnt down.

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 5: Well, the people of the [inaudible] in this area, they decided to build a clinic that the people of the area can use. You know, it was unfortunately during the crisis, it was burned down.

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 6: Can you imagine in a situation of conflict, of real war, like we’ve had in this area, and then you’re stuck here, and then you have -- you possibly have an enemy or two, you know, two boats out there waiting for you, can you imagine? I mean, where do you go?

CHEVRON REP.: Niger Delta is providing almost one-third of the oil that we are producing, and a lot of that oil is shut in because of ethnic unrest, so we have flow stations, pipelines, platforms, where we can’t produce the oil, because of this enormous community unrest.

NIGER DELTA RESIDENT 2: To begin the move away from chaos and violence and death to life.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from Sweet Crude, directed by Sandy Cioffi, who joins us now in the firehouse studio. Sandy is also a professor in the Film and Video Communications Department at Central Community College in Seattle, Washington. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

SANDY CIOFFI: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve just got the news out of Nigeria, this in the commercial capital Lagos, that at least 200 people -- it looks like the number could be higher -- have died in yet another oil pipeline explosion. Talk about the politics of what’s happening in Nigeria now.

SANDY CIOFFI: Well, Nigeria is the largest producer of oil in Africa, and actually it produces more oil than Iraq and Kuwait combined. And the people of Nigeria have seen none of the revenue from that oil. So what happens, the danger in the bunkering, which is the word that’s used for people who steal oil -- some people say it’s not stealing because it’s the oil that comes from their land, and they have no income. So very desperate people will actually get the equipment and go to pipelines, and they’ll puncture them to take oil and sell on the black market. It's a very complicated thing, because you can’t just sort of walk up with a drill and do it. You have to have fairly complicated equipment. And the government claims that it’s all thieves, but they have to be involved in what's happening, because people get in and out of the rivers in huge tankers and pass Nigerian navy. So it’s very common that people are stealing oil. It’s extremely dangerous, and explosions are not that uncommon. And that’s likely what occurred.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about who controls these pipelines and particularly the activism that is going on right now in the Niger Delta.

SANDY CIOFFI: For the last 50 years, oil has been produced in Nigeria, and that 50 years is also the period of time during which Nigeria has been free from being a British colony. The truth is that the legacy of that colony has the same structure laid on it, in terms of the corporate life now, so that what happened is that the corporate politics intersected with the existing illegal dictatorships. And those dictatorships were just happy to sign laws that said, OK, if there’s oil under your feet, the government and the oil companies own it.

So in the last 50 years, what has happened to the people in the Niger Delta is that they have had dredging, they have had a loss of their environment that’s unprecedented in one lifetime. They have no ability to fish, to farm. But all of the oil under their feet is owned in a joint collusion relationship in these what are called venture partnerships between corporations, one of which is an American corporation, Chevron, and several others. Shell is the largest actually. And they are essentially in a relationship where the government and those oil companies own all of that oil, the revenues of which are almost never seen by the people who are suffering from the consequences of it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Sandy Cioffi, who has just returned from Nigeria. Talk about the organization, MEND.

SANDY CIOFFI: MEND stands for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. In Nigeria, there has been activism over the last 20 years that some people may recognize some of the names, Ken Saro-Wiwa being the most famous activist. He was an Ogoni activist who was executed in 1995. And in his footsteps came some people who began to, instead of believing in nonviolent activism, began to believe in more violent response to their choice of how they would resist what they consider to be the enslavement of their people.

There was actually one significant nonviolent protest in 2002, which was led by a group of women who commandeered an oil platform. But in the Niger Delta, the relationship of people who, to us, we would consider to be in very separate categories -- students, mothers, elders -- those people are all related and all work together. MEND is an outgrowth of the group of young men who have no future, no jobs, who saw their mothers beaten within an inch of their lives on those oil platforms. And some of them were volunteer force members under Asari Dokubo, who has been in jail for the last two years, but they really only formed about a year ago. It’s almost exactly a year ago that MEND formed, and it formed originally in what is called Delta State.

It's very confusing right now, because there is a group called MEND that is claiming responsibility for some of what is occurring, but the original members of MEND, who are recognized as MEND by the United States government, Chevron security, those people are claiming that some of what’s occurring is by counterfeits.

AMY GOODMAN: And the women, the role that the women have played in this?

SANDY CIOFFI: Well, the women in Nigeria, as you can imagine, much like in many countries that have been exploited as a one-resource economy, the women have really suffered the most. The infant mortality rate is extremely high; the life expectancy, very short; the disease level, very high. And these women have suffered. The men often go off to the city to have any income at all, and they’re left alone to care for their families.

These women came together in 2002 and decided that they had had enough, and they would paddle wooden canoes up to huge oil platforms and climb on them and actually threaten to take their shirts off, which in Africa is a very big threat, and actually scared -- the oil workers said, “Well, we’ve been trained for every possible security threat, but we were never trained for hundreds of women to come in here and threaten to take their shirts off.? And it was very effective. And for the first time, something called an MOU was signed, which is a memorandum of understanding.

And those women were demanding fairly basic things, like jobs, some remediation of the environment, water, electricity, healthcare, basic infrastructure that you would expect, that if you have $38 billion annually of revenue going to your government, that you would have, and they have none of those things. In fact, they have quite the opposite. They have their livelihood taken away from them. The huge rivers of the Niger Delta used to yield fish that were just enormous. One day's catch could feed your family for a week. Now, the fish are -- and I’ve filmed this, I’ve seen it -- the fish are tiny. They have almost no meat. And they’re pure poison. They’re just soaking up oil, acid rain. So these women have suffered an enormous amount.

They commandeered these oil platforms. They got the MOUs signed. Very sadly, those MOUs have mostly gone --

AMY GOODMAN: Memos of understanding.

SANDY CIOFFI: Memoranda of understanding have largely gone unfulfilled. So many of those women have sons and have, through those women’s groups and then student groups, have said, “We have to step this up to another level.? I was actually under the impression before I was there this summer that many of the women would take issue with the choice to move toward violence. I was surprised to find that many of them actually feel that that’s necessary at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Sandy Cioffi, we’re going to break, then come back and also hear a clip of Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Literature Prize winner talking about his country, Nigeria. This is Democracy Now!, Sandy Cioffi is the director of a new film she’s making called Sweet Crude. She’s just returned from the Niger Delta. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We are continuing with Sandy Cioffi, documentary filmmaker, director of a new film called Sweet Crude. I wanted to play a clip of Wole Soyinka. He is a renowned writer from Nigeria, won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his writing. He joined us in our studio in April. This is what he had to say about the situation in the Niger Delta.

WOLE SOYINKA: Well, some of these companies and the governments that they represent, in some cases, make a mistake when they think that the indigenous of the land from whom this wealth is extracted, illiterate, not knowledgeable, uninformed, this is the fundamental mistake which they make. The thing they do not -- those who actually live there and whose land has been degraded, whose fishing ponds are being polluted, whose farm lands have been totally rendered useless for farming purposes, whose very air has been completely toxified by decades of gas flaring, they make a mistake when they think they do not observe the digits of profit, the statistics of profit being turned in by the companies, in other words, to the detriment of their own existence.

And so, the militancy in the oil-producing region has escalated in recent months. You must have heard of hostage-taking, and I personally, I’m in a position to tell you that I have participated in the efforts to release those hostages, which came to a successful conclusion. So I am in touch with some of these people, these young people, highly motivated. They are not thugs. They are not riffraff, as they are sometimes portrayed. They are disciplined. And they are determined to correct decades of injustice, and that's all they’re really after. You may disagree with their methods, but believe me, nobody should underestimate the very deep motivation that impels these people.

AMY GOODMAN: Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, in our studio this past April. Sandy Cioffi, he's talking about the original MEDN, the activists. He participated in some of the negotiations around hostage release.

SANDY CIOFFI: Mm-hmm, as did Oronto Douglas, a fairly well-known environmental activist, who we’ve interviewed. I think this really brings up an important question about the role of legitimate resistance movements post-September 11th. It is mass media’s inclination to instantly start using the word “terrorist.? And what seems to be true on the ground right now for the best of our ability to just determine what’s going on, is that there are some either splinter groups or some people are accusing the Nigerian government, with the support of US intelligence, in intentionally muddying the waters of this resistance movement, which was beginning to get fairly strong pan-Delta support. And as the elections are looming in Nigeria, this would be the first peaceful election if it were to occur in April. The stakes are quite high right now. And having a very strong legitimate resistance movement gaining some international sympathy seems to be very dangerous to the forces that want continued unfettered profits with absolutely no spotlight on looking at these land-use laws.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s something Ken Saro-Wiwa was leading before he was executed November 10, 1995, by the Nigerian dictatorship, when he was protesting Shell in Ogoniland. I did a documentary with my colleague, Democracy Now! producer Jeremy Scahill, called Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria’s Oil Dictatorship. What do you think is the role of these oil companies and the responsibility of corporations like Chevron?

SANDY CIOFFI: Well, since the time of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution, some of their role has been the same, but I think there are some important changes for us to look in terms of what US citizens can and should be doing right now in a very urgent moment, in what we have to call one of the most preventable tragedies in Africa. The role of the oil companies at this point is quite simple, but they talk about it as being very complicated. They are a major player in the future and the current state of this country. They claim, whenever you ask them critically what they’re doing, they claim that they should not be involved in the affairs of a foreign nation, which is of course absurd, because they’re engaged in influencing the affairs of foreign nations every day. In Nigeria, they literally sit down at the table with the Nigerian government and work with them every day to determine what’s going to happen with petroleum-use laws, with the environment, with actually how to deal with the resistance itself. So --

AMY GOODMAN: With the military as their own security.

SANDY CIOFFI: Oh, absolutely. The JTF, which means joint task force, serves as private security forces in, in essence, occupied villages. These villages are the places where pump stations are right literally in the middle of town. Gas flares right next to where people live. And the JTF is serving as security for Chevron and Shell.

I will tell you that those companies are starting to hear that -- because they’re right there on the front line, they are behaving as if they know that the time might run out for their ability to produce. In fact, Shell is down 25% in their production, because of the unrest. When I was there this last two weeks, the night sky, instead of being lit by seven gas flares, was only lit by two, because that many facilities have shut down.

So, the other interesting thing to note, is that what the people are saying is that with these oil facilities shut down, the environment is actually coming back, that there is some relief from some of the acid rain. You would think that people would say, “Well, if the oil companies leave, then, well, where will we get any revenue at all?? But I’ve heard many village people say, “Just fine. Just go ahead. Leave. We would prefer to see the environment be remediated and go back to fishing and farming.?

AMY GOODMAN: And so, the responsibility of the oil companies, not only there, but they are chartered in the United States. One of the stories that we exposed in 1998 was Chevron bringing in the Nigerian military, who opened fire on protesters who were protesting yet another oil spill, and they killed two villagers, critically wounded a third, rounded up others, put them in the notorious Nigerian jails, where some were tortured. Part of charters in this country are corporate responsibility.

SANDY CIOFFI: Mm-hmm. And it seems pretty clear right now that Nigeria is a fledgling democracy. And there is an election coming. It seems clear that there has been, I think, some hope in the corporate world that we still just wouldn't be paying attention. The Niger Delta seems to me one of those top-ten untold stories in the mass media, given the importance of the place and the potential humanitarian crisis. And the fact of the matter is that Chevron should be held responsible by US citizens to behave as a corporate player in the same way they would have to in San Francisco. And they would not be able to behave -- we would hope, certainly, they would not be able to behave as a player in this way in San Francisco.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. As we are doing this broadcast, we’re seeing the numbers mount in the Lagos oil pipeline explosion. It looks, at this point, like there are at least 500 people that have died. Sandy Cioffi, I want to thank you for being with us. Sandy Cioffi is the documentary filmmaker who is doing the film Sweet Crude. She is a professor of film and video at the Video and Film Communications Department at Central Community College in Seattle, Washington, returned last night from Nigeria.

November 22, 2006

Euphemism is Another Kind of Dark Glasses

November 20, 2006
Brother, Can You Spare a Word?

First the good news: the government’s annual hunger report shows a slight decline last year in the number of citizens in need of food. Now the bad news: the annual hunger report has dropped the word “hunger.?

Instead, there were 35 million Americans last year suffering from “low food security,? meaning they chronically lacked the resources to be able to eat enough food. Of these, 10.8 million lived with “very low food security,? meaning they were the hungriest among the hungry, so to speak.

Bureaucratic terminology about food security has always been a part of the hunger report, but so was the plain word “hunger.? The Agriculture Department decided that variations of “hungry? are not scientifically accurate, following the advice of the Committee on National Statistics of the National Academies. The specialists advised that being hungry was too amorphous a way to refer to “a potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation.?

The government insists that no Orwellian plot is in the works to mask a national blight. The goal has been to cut what we’ll call the hungry households to no more than 6 percent of the population. But hungry people persist at nearly twice that rate, despite the slight drop last year. To the extent that more public empathy is needed to prod a stronger attack on low food security, we opt for “hunger? as a most stirring word.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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November 7, 2006

Soldier Killed Herself After Objecting to Interrogation Techniques Being Used on Iraqi Prisoners

Soldier Killed Herself After Objecting to Interrogation Techniques Being Used on Iraqi Prisoners

Tuesday, November 7th, 2006
Specialist Alyssa Peterson died in Iraq in September, 2003. The military listed her death as the result of a "non-hostile weapons discharge." But newly uncovered military documents reveal Peterson actually shot herself with her service rifle. The documents also show her suicide came just two weeks after she refused to take part in further interrogations of Iraqi prisoners and had asked to be reassigned. We speak with the reporter who broke the story. [includes rush transcript]

Did the torture of Iraqi prisoners lead an American soldier to take her own life? The question is being raised on the heels of new-disclosed military documents kept under wraps for the past three years.
Specialist Alyssa Peterson was twenty-seven years old when she died on September 15th, 2003. She was the third female soldier to lose her life in the Iraq war. Peterson was assigned as an interrogator to a US air base in Tal Afar. The military listed her death as the result of a: "non-hostile weapons discharge."

But the newly uncovered military documents reveal Peterson actually shot herself with her service rifle. The documents also show her suicide came just two weeks after she refused to take part in further interrogations of Iraqi prisoners and had asked to be reassigned. Peterson had taken part in just two interrogation sessions. James D. Hamilton - Peterson's first sergeant -- told investigators: "It was hard for her to be aggressive to prisoners/detainees, as she felt that we were cruel to them." Military officials refused to describe what techniques Peterson had objected to and said all records of them had been destroyed.

Kevin Elston, the reporter who broke the story. Elston is host of Weekend Edition on the Arizona radio station KNAU. He speaks to us from Flagstaff, Arizona, Specialist Alyssa Peterson's hometown. Read Kevin Elston's article about Peterson's story.
This transcript is available free of charge. However, donations help us provide closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing on our TV broadcast. Thank you for your generous contribution.
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AMY GOODMAN: I’m joined now on the phone by the reporter who broke the story, joining us from Arizona radio station KNAU. His name is Kevin Elston. He speaks to us from Flagstaff, Arizona. Flagstaff was also Specialist Alyssa Peterson's hometown. Kevin Elston, welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have of to have you with us.

KEVIN ELSTON: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this case and what you found and how you found it out?

KEVIN ELSTON: Well, yeah, that sums it up. You know, she objected to the interrogation techniques that they were using at that particular base. It's interesting that it was seven months before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. I have to wonder if there’s some connection.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Alyssa’s story, how she came to be in the military.

KEVIN ELSTON: Yeah, she got a psychology degree from Northern Arizona University on an ROTC scholarship and then fulfilled her obligation by attending the interrogation school at Fort Huachuca in Southern Arizona. She spent a year at, I think it was, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in Arabic language school, before they sent her over there. She was in country for three weeks before she killed herself.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the documents that you were able to get.

KEVIN ELSTON: I got a copy of the death investigation. I got a copy of the criminal investigation and some excerpts from the autopsy. I didn't get the full autopsy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about her family and what her family understood?

KEVIN ELSTON: Her family didn't really want to know how she died, for their own reasons. I think they suspected that it was a suicide. I talked to her brother the other day, and he said that he suspected it was a suicide, but they all decided that they didn't want to know the details.

AMY GOODMAN: She was an Arabic-speaking interrogator who was trained at Fort Huachuca?


AMY GOODMAN: And what further information do you have about how she went from there to Iraq, and then exactly what she was doing in Iraq?

KEVIN ELSTON: She was in the -- I think it was called the 110th Intelligence Battalion. It's part of the 101st Airborne Division. Like I say, she did train in Arabic in Kentucky, and then they sent her over there. She was in country for two days before she did her first interrogation. Her second interrogation was the day after that. The day after that, she attended suicide prevention training and requested to be transferred. She said that she could not carry out the interrogation techniques that they were using in the cage, which is what they called the interrogation unit at the Tal Afar Air Base, where she was assigned, and then she was reassigned to the gate, where she interviewed Iraqi workers and monitored Iraqi guards for what they thought might be duplicitous behavior.

AMY GOODMAN: And is there any suggestion that she might have been killed by anyone else, or is it quite clear that she committed suicide at this point?

KEVIN ELSTON: The military investigation concluded that she committed suicide. My understanding is that there was a suicide note found on her body, but I was unable to obtain a copy of that.

AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Kevin Elston, host of Weekend Edition on the Arizona radio station KNAU, who has been investigating the case of Flagstaff soldier, Specialist Alyssa Peterson, who was 27 years old, an Arabic-speaking interrogator who trained in Arizona, assigned to a unit at Tal Afar Air Base in northwestern Iraq, and according to a criminal investigation report recently released by the military under the Freedom of Information Act, Peterson had been in Iraq for two weeks and participated in two interrogations. Any further information about those interrogations?

KEVIN ELSTON: No. I was unable to obtain any descriptions of those interrogations, and as I said, the FOIA officer for her unit said that all records of those interrogations had been destroyed as a matter of course when that unit was disbanded, upon returning from Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Did that sound at all unusual to you?

KEVIN ELSTON: It did to me, but I’m not in the military.

AMY GOODMAN: And her parents, her family, her brother, do they want more information?

KEVIN ELSTON: No, they definitely don't.

AMY GOODMAN: Where are you going with the story now, Kevin?

KEVIN ELSTON: I’ve been talking with some senior producers on my network and, you know, doing some further investigations. I filed additional FOIA requests, and I’m hoping to find out more information.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Kevin Elston, I want to thank you very much for being with us, host of Weekend Edition on the Arizona radio station KNAU in Flagstaff, Arizona. Thank you.

October 22, 2006

Iraq "Excess" Death Toll Has Reached 655,000

Study Claims Iraq's 'Excess' Death Toll Has Reached 655,000
By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 11, 2006; A12

A team of American and Iraqi epidemiologists estimates that 655,000 more people have died in Iraq since coalition forces arrived in March 2003 than would have died if the invasion had not occurred.

The estimate, produced by interviewing residents during a random sampling of households throughout the country, is far higher than ones produced by other groups, including Iraq's government.

It is more than 20 times the estimate of 30,000 civilian deaths that President Bush gave in a speech in December. It is more than 10 times the estimate of roughly 50,000 civilian deaths made by the British-based Iraq Body Count research group.

The surveyors said they found a steady increase in mortality since the invasion, with a steeper rise in the last year that appears to reflect a worsening of violence as reported by the U.S. military, the news media and civilian groups. In the year ending in June, the team calculated Iraq's mortality rate to be roughly four times what it was the year before the war.

Of the total 655,000 estimated "excess deaths," 601,000 resulted from violence and the rest from disease and other causes, according to the study. This is about 500 unexpected violent deaths per day throughout the country.

The survey was done by Iraqi physicians and overseen by epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. The findings are being published online today by the British medical journal the Lancet.

The same group in 2004 published an estimate of roughly 100,000 deaths in the first 18 months after the invasion. That figure was much higher than expected, and was controversial. The new study estimates that about 500,000 more Iraqis, both civilian and military, have died since then -- a finding likely to be equally controversial.

Both this and the earlier study are the only ones to estimate mortality in Iraq using scientific methods. The technique, called "cluster sampling," is used to estimate mortality in famines and after natural disasters.

While acknowledging that the estimate is large, the researchers believe it is sound for numerous reasons. The recent survey got the same estimate for immediate post-invasion deaths as the early survey, which gives the researchers confidence in the methods. The great majority of deaths were also substantiated by death certificates.

"We're very confident with the results," said Gilbert Burnham, a Johns Hopkins physician and epidemiologist.

A Defense Department spokesman did not comment directly on the estimate.

"The Department of Defense always regrets the loss of any innocent life in Iraq or anywhere else," said Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros. "The coalition takes enormous precautions to prevent civilian deaths and injuries."

He added that "it would be difficult for the U.S. to precisely determine the number of civilian deaths in Iraq as a result of insurgent activity. The Iraqi Ministry of Health would be in a better position, with all of its records, to provide more accurate information on deaths in Iraq."

Ronald Waldman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for many years, called the survey method "tried and true," and added that "this is the best estimate of mortality we have."

This viewed was echoed by Sarah Leah Whitson, an official of Human Rights Watch in New York, who said, "We have no reason to question the findings or the accuracy" of the survey.

"I expect that people will be surprised by these figures," she said. "I think it is very important that, rather than questioning them, people realize there is very, very little reliable data coming out of Iraq."

The survey was conducted between May 20 and July 10 by eight Iraqi physicians organized through Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. They visited 1,849 randomly selected households that had an average of seven members each. One person in each household was asked about deaths in the 14 months before the invasion and in the period after.

The interviewers asked for death certificates 87 percent of the time; when they did, more than 90 percent of households produced certificates.

According to the survey results, Iraq's mortality rate in the year before the invasion was 5.5 deaths per 1,000 people; in the post-invasion period it was 13.3 deaths per 1,000 people per year. The difference between these rates was used to calculate "excess deaths."

Of the 629 deaths reported, 87 percent occurred after the invasion. A little more than 75 percent of the dead were men, with a greater male preponderance after the invasion. For violent post-invasion deaths, the male-to-female ratio was 10-to-1, with most victims between 15 and 44 years old.

Gunshot wounds caused 56 percent of violent deaths, with car bombs and other explosions causing 14 percent, according to the survey results. Of the violent deaths that occurred after the invasion, 31 percent were caused by coalition forces or airstrikes, the respondents said.

Burnham said that the estimate of Iraq's pre-invasion death rate -- 5.5 deaths per 1,000 people -- found in both of the Hopkins surveys was roughly the same estimate used by the CIA and the U.S. Census Bureau. He said he believes that attests to the accuracy of his team's results.

He thinks further evidence of the survey's robustness is that the steepness of the upward trend it found in excess deaths in the last two years is roughly the same tendency found by other groups -- even though the actual numbers differ greatly.

An independent group of researchers and biostatisticians based in England produces the Iraq Body Count. It estimates that there have been 44,000 to 49,000 civilian deaths since the invasion. An Iraqi nongovernmental organization estimated 128,000 deaths between the invasion and July 2005.

The survey cost about $50,000 and was paid for by Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for International Studies.

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

March 21, 2006

Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn

New York Times
March 20, 2006
Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn

BALTIMORE — Black men in the United States face a far more dire situation than is portrayed by common employment and education statistics, a flurry of new scholarly studies warn, and it has worsened in recent years even as an economic boom and a welfare overhaul have brought gains to black women and other groups.

Focusing more closely than ever on the life patterns of young black men, the new studies, by experts at Columbia, Princeton, Harvard and other institutions, show that the huge pool of poorly educated black men are becoming ever more disconnected from the mainstream society, and to a far greater degree than comparable white or Hispanic men.

Especially in the country's inner cities, the studies show, finishing high school is the exception, legal work is scarcer than ever and prison is almost routine, with incarceration rates climbing for blacks even as urban crime rates have declined.

Although the problems afflicting poor black men have been known for decades, the new data paint a more extensive and sobering picture of the challenges they face.

"There's something very different happening with young black men, and it's something we can no longer ignore," said Ronald B. Mincy, professor of social work at Columbia University and editor of "Black Males Left Behind" (Urban Institute Press, 2006).

"Over the last two decades, the economy did great," Mr. Mincy said, "and low-skilled women, helped by public policy, latched onto it. But young black men were falling farther back."

Many of the new studies go beyond the traditional approaches to looking at the plight of black men, especially when it comes to determining the scope of joblessness. For example, official unemployment rates can be misleading because they do not include those not seeking work or incarcerated.

"If you look at the numbers, the 1990's was a bad decade for young black men, even though it had the best labor market in 30 years," said Harry J. Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University and co-author, with Peter Edelman and Paul Offner, of "Reconnecting Disadvantaged Young Men" (Urban Institute Press, 2006).

In response to the worsening situation for young black men, a growing number of programs are placing as much importance on teaching life skills — like parenting, conflict resolution and character building — as they are on teaching job skills.

These were among the recent findings:

¶The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990's. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20's were jobless — that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20's were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000.

¶Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990's and reached historic highs in the past few years. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their 20's who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 percent were incarcerated. By their mid-30's, 6 in 10 black men who had dropped out of school had spent time in prison.

¶In the inner cities, more than half of all black men do not finish high school.

None of the litany of problems that young black men face was news to a group of men from the airless neighborhoods of Baltimore who recently described their experiences.

One of them, Curtis E. Brannon, told a story so commonplace it hardly bears notice here. He quit school in 10th grade to sell drugs, fathered four children with three mothers, and spent several stretches in jail for drug possession, parole violations and other crimes.

"I was with the street life, but now I feel like I've got to get myself together," Mr. Brannon said recently in the row-house flat he shares with his girlfriend and four children. "You get tired of incarceration."

Mr. Brannon, 28, said he planned to look for work, perhaps as a mover, and he noted optimistically that he had not been locked up in six months.

A group of men, including Mr. Brannon, gathered at the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development, one of several private agencies trying to help men build character along with workplace skills.

The clients readily admit to their own bad choices but say they also fight a pervasive sense of hopelessness.

"It hurts to get that boot in the face all the time," said Steve Diggs, 34. "I've had a lot of charges but only a few convictions," he said of his criminal record.

Mr. Diggs is now trying to strike out on his own, developing a party space for rentals, but he needs help with business skills.

"I don't understand," said William Baker, 47. "If a man wants to change, why won't society give him a chance to prove he's a changed person?" Mr. Baker has a lot of record to overcome, he admits, not least his recent 15-year stay in the state penitentiary for armed robbery.

Mr. Baker led a visitor down the Pennsylvania Avenue strip he wants to escape — past idlers, addicts and hustlers, storefront churches and fortresslike liquor stores — and described a life that seemed inevitable.

He sold marijuana for his parents, he said, left school in the sixth grade and later dealt heroin and cocaine. He was for decades addicted to heroin, he said, easily keeping the habit during three terms in prison. But during his last long stay, he also studied hard to get a G.E.D. and an associate's degree.

Now out for 18 months, Mr. Baker is living in a home for recovering drug addicts. He is working a $10-an-hour warehouse job while he ponders how to make a living from his real passion, drawing and graphic arts.

"I don't want to be a criminal at 50," Mr. Baker said.

According to census data, there are about five million black men ages 20 to 39 in the United States.

Terrible schools, absent parents, racism, the decline in blue collar jobs and a subculture that glorifies swagger over work have all been cited as causes of the deepening ruin of black youths. Scholars — and the young men themselves — agree that all of these issues must be addressed.

Joseph T. Jones, director of the fatherhood and work skills center here, puts the breakdown of families at the core.

"Many of these men grew up fatherless, and they never had good role models," said Mr. Jones, who overcame addiction and prison time. "No one around them knows how to navigate the mainstream society."

All the negative trends are associated with poor schooling, studies have shown, and progress has been slight in recent years. Federal data tend to understate dropout rates among the poor, in part because imprisoned youths are not counted.

Closer studies reveal that in inner cities across the country, more than half of all black men still do not finish high school, said Gary Orfield, an education expert at Harvard and editor of "Dropouts in America" (Harvard Education Press, 2004).

"We're pumping out boys with no honest alternative," Mr. Orfield said in an interview, "and of course their neighborhoods offer many other alternatives."

Dropout rates for Hispanic youths are as bad or worse but are not associated with nearly as much unemployment or crime, the data show.

With the shift from factory jobs, unskilled workers of all races have lost ground, but none more so than blacks. By 2004, 50 percent of black men in their 20's who lacked a college education were jobless, as were 72 percent of high school dropouts, according to data compiled by Bruce Western, a sociologist at Princeton and author of the forthcoming book "Punishment and Inequality in America" (Russell Sage Press). These are more than double the rates for white and Hispanic men.

Mr. Holzer of Georgetown and his co-authors cite two factors that have curbed black employment in particular.

First, the high rate of incarceration and attendant flood of former offenders into neighborhoods have become major impediments. Men with criminal records tend to be shunned by employers, and young blacks with clean records suffer by association, studies have found.

Arrests of black men climbed steeply during the crack epidemic of the 1980's, but since then the political shift toward harsher punishments, more than any trends in crime, has accounted for the continued growth in the prison population, Mr. Western said.

By their mid-30's, 30 percent of black men with no more than a high school education have served time in prison, and 60 percent of dropouts have, Mr. Western said.

Among black dropouts in their late 20's, more are in prison on a given day — 34 percent — than are working — 30 percent — according to an analysis of 2000 census data by Steven Raphael of the University of California, Berkeley.

The second special factor is related to an otherwise successful policy: the stricter enforcement of child support. Improved collection of money from absent fathers has been a pillar of welfare overhaul. But the system can leave young men feeling overwhelmed with debt and deter them from seeking legal work, since a large share of any earnings could be seized.

About half of all black men in their late 20's and early 30's who did not go to college are noncustodial fathers, according to Mr. Holzer. From the fathers' viewpoint, support obligations "amount to a tax on earnings," he said.

Some fathers give up, while others find casual work. "The work is sporadic, not the kind that leads to advancement or provides unemployment insurance," Mr. Holzer said. "It's nothing like having a real job."

The recent studies identified a range of government programs and experiments, especially education and training efforts like the Job Corps, that had shown success and could be scaled up.

Scholars call for intensive new efforts to give children a better start, including support for parents and extra schooling for children.

They call for teaching skills to prisoners and helping them re-enter society more productively, and for less automatic incarceration of minor offenders.

In a society where higher education is vital to economic success, Mr. Mincy of Columbia said, programs to help more men enter and succeed in college may hold promise. But he lamented the dearth of policies and resources to aid single men.

"We spent $50 billion in efforts that produced the turnaround for poor women," Mr. Mincy said. "We are not even beginning to think about the men's problem on similar orders of magnitude."

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company


March 12, 2006

Defenders of the Faith

March 12, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor
Defenders of the Faith


FOR centuries, we have been told that without religion we are no more than egotistic animals fighting for our share, our only morality that of a pack of wolves; only religion, it is said, can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?

More than a century ago, in "The Brothers Karamazov" and other works, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted. The French philosopher André Glucksmann even applied Dostoyevsky's critique of godless nihilism to 9/11, as the title of his book, "Dostoyevsky in Manhattan," suggests.

This argument couldn't have been more wrong: the lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted — at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the "godless" Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.

During the Seventh Crusade, led by St. Louis, Yves le Breton reported how he once encountered an old woman who wandered down the street with a dish full of fire in her right hand and a bowl full of water in her left hand. Asked why she carried the two bowls, she answered that with the fire she would burn up Paradise until nothing remained of it, and with the water she would put out the fires of Hell until nothing remained of them: "Because I want no one to do good in order to receive the reward of Paradise, or from fear of Hell; but solely out of love for God." Today, this properly Christian ethical stance survives mostly in atheism.

Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do. Is this also not our most elementary experience of morality? When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God's favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror. A moral deed is by definition its own reward. David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.

Two years ago, Europeans were debating whether the preamble of the European Constitution should mention Christianity as a key component of the European legacy. As usual, a compromise was worked out, a reference in general terms to the "religious inheritance" of Europe. But where was modern Europe's most precious legacy, that of atheism? What makes modern Europe unique is that it is the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post.

Atheism is a European legacy worth fighting for, not least because it creates a safe public space for believers. Consider the debate that raged in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, my home country, as the constitutional controversy simmered: should Muslims (mostly immigrant workers from the old Yugoslav republics) be allowed to build a mosque? While conservatives opposed the mosque for cultural, political and even architectural reasons, the liberal weekly journal Mladina was consistently outspoken in its support for the mosque, in keeping with its concern for the rights of those from other former Yugoslav republics.

Not surprisingly, given its liberal attitudes, Mladina was also one of the few Slovenian publications to reprint the infamous caricatures of Muhammad. And, conversely, those who displayed the greatest "understanding" for the violent Muslim protests those cartoons caused were also the ones who regularly expressed their concern for the fate of Christianity in Europe.

These weird alliances confront Europe's Muslims with a difficult choice: the only political force that does not reduce them to second-class citizens and allows them the space to express their religious identity are the "godless" atheist liberals, while those closest to their religious social practice, their Christian mirror-image, are their greatest political enemies. The paradox is that Muslims' only real allies are not those who first published the caricatures for shock value, but those who, in support of the ideal of freedom of expression, reprinted them.

While a true atheist has no need to boost his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to one of respect for other's beliefs. Respect for other's beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.

What, however, about submitting Islam — together with all other religions — to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.

Slavoj Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, is the author, most recently, of "The Parallax View."

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company