Friday, March 10, 2006

The Court-Martial of Willie Brand

The following is a transcript of a segment that appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes" broadcast on Sunday, March 5.

You wouldn't figure Willie Brand for a killer. He's a quiet young soldier from Cincinnati who volunteered to be a guard at a U.S. military prison in Bagram, Afghanistan. But when 60 Minutes met him, Brand was facing a court-martial in the deaths of two prisoners. The prisoners were found hanging from chains in their isolation cells. They had been beaten; one of them was "pulpified," according to the medical examiner.

Brand told correspondent Scott Pelley what he did wasn't torture, it was his training, authorized and supervised by his superiors. So how is it he was charged with assault, maiming and manslaughter?

"I didn't understand how they could do this after they had trained you to do this stuff and they turn around and say you've been bad you shouldn't have done this stuff now they're going to charge you with assault, maiming and 'unvoluntary' manslaughter, how can this be when they trained you to do it and they condoned it while you were doing it," says Brand.

"[The] Army says you are a violent man," Pelley said.

"They do say that, but I'm not a violent person," Brand replied.

But there was violence in the prison. A man named Habibullah and a cab driver called Dilawar died only days after they had been brought in on suspicion of being Taliban fighters.

"They brought death upon themselves as far as I'm concerned," says Capt. Christopher Beiring, who was Brand's commanding officer as head of the prison guards. Beiring was charged with dereliction of duty, but the charge was later dropped.

Asked whether compared to other detainees Habibullah was more or less aggressive, Beiring says, "Yes, absolutely more. He was probably the worst we had."

What kind of prisoner was Dilawar?

"I wouldn't categorize him as the worst but he, but he definitely, several of my soldiers would say that he would test them, fight with them kick, trip, try to bite, spit. That's typically what a fighter does," Beiring recalls.

Dilawar was picked up outside a U.S. base that had been hit by a rocket. Habibullah was brought in by the CIA, rumored to be a high-ranking Taliban. Both of them were locked in isolation cells with hoods over their heads and their arms shackled to the ceiling.

Their shackled hands, according to Brand, were at about eye level. The point of chaining them to the ceiling, Brand says, was to keep the detainees awake by not letting them lie down and sleep.

Interrogators wanted the prisoners softened up.

Asked what the longest period of time Brand saw a detainee chained like that, Brand says, "Probably about two days."

"Two days? Without a break?" Pelley asked.

"Without a break," Brand replied.

Capt. Beiring says he doesn't know of prisoners chained that long. But in general, he had no problem with the procedure.

"They weren't in pain. They weren't, as far as I'm concerned they weren't being abused. It seemed OK to me. If I was a prisoner, I would think that would probably be acceptable," says Beiring.

Brand says something else was thought to be acceptable in the prison: a brutal way of controlling prisoners - a knee to the common peroneal nerve in the leg, a strike with so much force behind it that the prisoner would lose muscle control and collapse in pain.

Brand says he vaguely remembers giving knee strikes to Habibullah.

How did the detainee react to that?

"The same way everybody else did. I mean he would scream out 'Allah, Allah, Allah'; sometimes his legs would buckle and sometimes it wouldn't," Brand explained.

It wasn't only Willie Brand. A confidential report by the Army's criminal investigation division accuses dozens of soldiers of abuse, including "slamming [a prisoner] into walls [and a] table," "forcing water into his mouth until he could not breathe," giving "kicks to the groin" and once, according to the report, a soldier "threatened to rape a male detainee." Soldiers even earned nicknames including "King of Torture" and "Knee of Death."

Habibullah and Dilawar were found dead in their cells, hanging from their chains. The military medical examiner says Dilawar's legs were pulpified. Both autopsy reports were marked "homicide." But the Army spokesman in Afghanistan told the media that both men had died of natural causes. With two deaths in a week, the Army decided to investigate. But the facts only began to become public months later in an article in The New York Times.

"I could smell that I was looking at what I thought was a cover-up," says retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson.

Back in Washington, Wilkerson smelled trouble, and so did his boss. Wilkerson was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. In 2004, during the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal in Iraq, Powell asked Wilkerson to investigate how Americans had come to torture.

"I was developing the picture as to how this all got started in the first place, and that alarmed me as much as the abuse itself because it looked like authorization for this abuse went to the very top of the United States government," says Wilkerson.

In 2002, the "top of the government" was divided over whether the Geneva Convention applied to prisoners in Afghanistan. The resulting presidential directive tried to have it both ways ordering that the "…armed forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely" but Geneva would apply only "to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity...."

It's Wilkerson's opinion that the Army chose to ignore Geneva when it issued new rules for interrogations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"That essentially says to the troops at the bottom of the rung that you have a new game," Wilkerson says. "You can use the methods that aren't in accordance with Geneva. You can use methods that are other than when you've been taught, trained and told you could use. That, that is an invitation, a license to go beyond that, especially when you're also putting on them tremendous pressure to produce intelligence."

Capt. Beiring acknowledges that there was some confusion. "Because a lot of people didn't really know, what are their status? Who are these people? Did they sign the Geneva Convention? Who are they and what do we do with them? So there was some confusion," he says.

"Can you tell me whether anyone up the chain of command above you was aware that the prisoners were being shackled with their hands up about shoulder high?" Pelley asked.

"Absolutely," Beiring said.

"Who knew?" Pelley asked.

"Several of my leaders knew because we had them like that, you know, there was probably one or two like that any given day. And we didn't change the procedure if someone came through whether they were a colonel or a general, we left them the same. They seen (sic) what was going on there," Beiring answered.

Pelley asked Brand if other leaders knew what was going on.

Gen. Daniel McNeill, the top officer in Afghanistan, said "we are not chaining people to the ceilings."

Brand disagreed. "Well, he's lying obviously. I mean because we were doing it on a daily basis," he says.

"Gen. Theodore Nicholas, he was the top military intelligence officer in Afghanistan said that he did not recall prisoners being shackled with their arms overhead. Is that reasonable?" Pelley asked.

"No," Brand replied.

"Lt. Col. Ronald Stallings told investigators, quote, 'he had no idea,' end quote, that prisoners were being chained overhead for 24 hours and more. What you seem to be saying is that it was common knowledge," Pelley said.

"Yes," Brand said.

"It wasn't being kept a secret from the chain of command?" Pelley asked.

"No," Brand replied.

We don't know whether Gen. McNeill toured the prison, Brand doesn't specifically remember him there. But Gen. Nicholas and Lt. Col. Stallings were there. 60 Minutes wanted to speak with all three, but they declined.

There were inspection tours at the prison, run by the Red Cross. But the Red Cross didn't see everything. For example, it didn't see the instructions written on a dry erase board that told the guards how long prisoners were to be chained.

"We didn't want them to know - we didn't think they had an operational reason to know," says Capt. Beiring. "It also had other things on there like if a detainee was fighting or being punished for doing stuff wrong or if he didn't eat his food or he wasn't drinking, but yes, we erased that board so the ICRC we didn't think they had the need to know."

There was a lot the Red Cross didn't know. Medical experts say that Dilawar's injuries were so severe that, if he had lived, both his legs would have required amputation. Even worse, one soldier testified that most of the interrogators thought Dilawar had been arrested only because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. They had come to believe he was just a cab driver.

"And so we killed an innocent man, and that's something else that got me as I went though this, got me very concerned as to not just what we are doing to perhaps al Qaeda or al Qaeda-like terrorists or even insurgents when we come to Iraq, but what were doing to innocents," says Wilkerson.

Wilkerson says the Secretary of State, who devoted much of his life to the Army, was enraged. As the Abu Ghraib torture scandal was breaking, Wilkerson says his boss snapped up the phone and called Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

"And he essentially said, 'Don, don't you know what you're doing to our credibility around the world don't you know what you're doing to our image?' And for Secretary Powell to raise his voice that way was quite extraordinary. I've only heard him do it maybe five times in 16 years," says Wilkerson.

"What do you mean he raised his voice?" Pelley asked.

"I'm sure Secretary Rumsfeld was probably holding the phone away from his ear," Wilkerson replied.

In August, Willie Brand faced court-martial. Prosecutors said he and other guards had struck the prisoners dozens and dozens of times.

"People watching this interview are thinking, 'Look, this guy came into this facility, he was there five days and he was dead. He died in five days' time,' How did that happen?" Pelley asked.

"I don't really know how that happened," Brand replied.

"You hit him, you hit him numerous times. Did you think it was you?" Pelley asked.

"No," Brand replied.

"The Army would have us believe that you were operating outside the rules," Pelley said.

"This is what we were trained to do, and this is what we did. And not only that I was not the only one, there were many other people hitting them - and this was going on on a daily basis and nothing was said about it," Brand said.

But Capt. Beiring says those were not his orders. He says those knee strikes were to be used only for self-defense.

"You've read the Army investigation, and in it some of the witnesses say one of the soldiers was nicknamed the 'King of Torture' another one had quote the 'Knee of Death.' You were there; were you not seeing this?" Pelley asked Beiring.

"No, I was not," Beiring replied. "Some nicknames, as a commander you are fairly removed from the junior soldiers, so nicknames could have occurred that I did not know about."

"It's not the nicknames, it's how they got the nicknames that matters," Pelley said.

"I can't say for sure, I can only say I never witnessed any of my soldiers do anything that was out of line," Beiring said.

Still, a letter of reprimand has been written that blisters Beiring. It says his "command failures enabled an environment of abuse." But the charges that could have brought court-martial against him were dropped. An investigating officer said that Beiring "may not have done his duty perfectly, but he did it well." Beiring is appealing the reprimand.

Asked if he, in retrospect, has any sympathy for Habibullah and Dilawar, Beiring says, "Sure, I have some sympathy. I wish they were born Americans."

At his court-martial, Willie Brand was convicted of assault and maiming. He faced 16 years. But the jury of soldiers had it both ways. They convicted him and let him go with a reduction in rank, nothing more. So far, 15 soldiers have been charged in the Bagram abuse. The sentences range from letters of reprimand to five months in jail. No one above the rank of captain has been charged.

Retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, after serving 31 years in the Army, has drawn his own conclusions about how interrogation procedures were changed in Afghanistan and later in Iraq.

How did it go wrong?

"It went wrong because we had a secretary of defense who had never served on the ground a day in his life, who was arrogant and thought that he could release those twin pressures on the backs of his armed forces, the twin pressures being a wink and a nod, you can do a lot of things that you know don't correspond to Geneva, don't correspond to your code of conduct, don't correspond to the Army field manual, and at the same time I want intelligence, I want intelligence, I want it now," says Wilkerson.

While Secretary Rumsfeld never served in combat, he was a Navy aviator and retired from the reserves as a captain. 60 Minutes wanted to talk with Secretary Rumsfeld, but the Pentagon declined our requests. Since the deaths at Bagram, chaining from the ceiling has been banned. The number of prisoners there has increased fivefold, to roughly 500. The prisoners don't get lawyers, and they can't appeal their detentions. But, the military tells 60 Minutes, it reviews each prisoner's file for release at least once a year.

Satan is Resting Easy: The Power of Christ "Propels" Them


Remember, Big Brother is watching, listening and reading. In light of the illegal surveillance they are conducting at the behest of their incompetent, rogue, and murderous Commander-in-Chief, I am dedicating this essay to the NSA.

To George Bush, Dick Cheney, Daniel Pipes, and their soulless war-mongering compadres, I proudly admit that I support the Palestinians (and their democratically elected Hamas leaders) in their struggle against their brutal Israeli oppressors. In fact, consider me a member of the so-called Fifth Column identified by Pipes. I abhor virtually all of the foreign and domestic policies the Machiavellian disciples of Strauss have implemented through wielding their ill-gotten power and influence. However, the United States is as much my country as it is theirs. I fully intend to remain here and work persistently against them by continuing to tenaciously pursue human rights and social justice for humanity, not simply for a select few in the United States and Israel.

Quoting the eloquent and infamous words of the incredibly articulate Mr. Cheney, I say, "Fuck you!" to their malignant cabal. While this nefarious faction and its loyalists may consider me a traitor, I refuse to pledge allegiance to a pack of criminals who have hijacked the government of the people of the United States. If it is treason to dissent against corrupt thieves and murderers who have shredded our sacred Constitution, I stand guilty as charged.

There are lies and there are damned lies…

One of the boldest and most insidious lies propagated by the leadership of the Zionists, the Dominionists, the Religious Right, and by their whores in Washington is that the Middle East is populated primarily by Islamic extremists with an insatiable thirst for the blood of "innocent American Christians" and who are hell bent on eliminating "those poor chronic victims" illegally occupying the land of the Palestinians and committing genocide against them.

Somehow, in a twist of logic only Lewis Carroll could fully comprehend, many people in the United States have been indoctrinated to believe that our nation, which possesses the largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction in the history of mankind, is the only nation to have used those weapons on a massive scale (just ask the Japanese), and bears direct and indirect responsibility for the murder of tens of millions of innocent civilians over the last century, is a benevolent super-power illuminating a beacon of hope for humanity. I readily recognize that other nations and governments have committed their share of atrocities, but I do not see them waving the Red, White and Blue, piously trumpeting platitudes about spreading freedom and democracy, and simultaneously waging pre-emptive strikes against nations which they merely “perceive to be a potential threat”. Holier than thou, dost thou think? The golden chalice of the United States runneth over with putrid sanctimony.

The terror of gazing at one’s own reflection…

For over a year now, I have written numerous essays which have been widely published on the Internet. My primary goal has been to inspire Americans to apply the same humanitarian standards to our nation that we use to stringently and hypocritically measure other nations. I have also attempted to convince more Americans to engage in introspection and self-examination. When I began plumbing those depths about 13 years ago, I did not like what I saw. I have steadily acted to reshape my values, outlook, and decisions to align with ideals such as human rights, social justice, peace, equality, thrift, dignity, honesty, respect, and responsibility. While I have not achieved the high moral plain of a Gandhi by any means, I have become more a part of the solution than the problem.

Based on the hateful, denigrating, and sometimes threatening emails I receive from about a third of the readers responding to my essays, I conclude that my message threatens the sense of security many Americans derive from supporting the status quo. I have also determined that I am swimming upstream against an addictive torrent of vitriolic propaganda spewed by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Jonah Goldberg, and a host of others. Sorry to disappoint those of you who have told me to leave the country, kill myself, or renounce being a “traitor and a "self-hating American" (yes, they often parrot the rhetoric of the likes of Daniel Pipes), but I have no intention of moving, killing myself, or abandoning my deeply rooted antipathy for the enemies of humanity (and the Earth) who have stolen the United States from We the People.

Jesus as a commodity… and a weapon

One of the American elite’s (amongst whom I include their complicit disseminators of propaganda in the mainstream media) most repulsive means of grabbing and maintaining power has been its shameless use of spiritual manipulation, a heinous form of psychological abuse. Preying on fear, insecurity, and ignorance, they have perverted true Christianity to the extent that a third of those voting for George Bush, a man as morally repugnant as Dorian Gray, were a part of the radical Religious Right.

With the help of mendacious, avaricious, and highly sophisticated hucksters like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Ted Haggard, the American plutocracy has packaged and commercialized spirituality like an Extra Value Meal at McDonald’s. You want fast food salvation done the American way? Look for the Golden Crosses, zip into the drive-through, drop some donation money, and accept Christ as your savior! Forget spiritual pain or sacrifice. Jesus died to grant you a path to easy street. So be on your merry way with your Big Mac of two all beef patties and guaranteed eternity in heaven. Chase it down with an enchanting Golgotha collector’s cup filled with smug certainty that you are now morally superior to the rest of humanity. Savor a side of Schadenfreude fries delightfully spiced with visions of the abject torment the “heathens” will face when Jesus the Avenger returns to Earth to smite the sinners.

Acknowledging that not all those comprising the Religious Right are created equal, and that there is a great deal of diversity amongst their beliefs and practices, there is enough commonality to conclude that the malefactors at the helm of the US have leveraged the hateful, narrow-minded beliefs of enough of these fanatics to garner sufficient support to commit egregious acts of torture, passive mass murder (New Orleans ring a bell?), massive slaughter under the guise of military intervention, and theft of public funds.

Men like Dobson shepherd their flocks to vote for bellicose champions of the wealthy because these “moral stalwarts” have pledged their undying support to a "culture of life". Despite their "devotion" to making abortion illegal, ending the use of human embryos (even those which would otherwise be discarded) for stem cell research, and denying equal rights to 5-10% of our population (gays and lesbians), the power brokers have perpetually been incapable of making good on their promises. While championing these “family values”, they have mesmerized their Religious Right followers into supporting the false dichotomy of Christianity vs. Islam, an imperialistic and murderous agenda in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, and domestic policies which significantly erode the economic well-being of their radical Christian base (and the rest of us amongst the working class). Thomas Frank explored this mind-blowing phenomenon in great detail in his book, What's the Matter with Kansas.

Realize that I am not disparaging the Christian religion in general. Personally, I am a spiritual person with a belief in a Higher Power, but I am not Christian. However, I recognize that there are many rational, compassionate, and decent human beings who practice Christianity. If one reads many of my essays, one will discover that I often find myself defending Islam and its followers in my writing. I do this because they have been the victims of Western imperialism for years. I make no claim that either the Muslims or Christians are better. I am simply deeply concerned about the Western genocide and acts of imperialism committed against Islamic peoples since oil became a valued commodity. In spite of the despicable misdeeds committed in our names, we wonder why so many in the Middle East harbor such hostility against the United States and its residents. We act befuddled, violated, and validated in our belief that we are morally superior when obscenely oppressed and exploited people resort to “terrorism” in a desperate attempt to defend themselves from the mightiest military and economy in the history of the world.

I abhor the violence committed by both sides, but we are not the “good guys”. The prevaricators leading our nation and writing our history have portrayed Americans as wearing the white hats for far too long. Transgressions and atrocities have been committed by many nations and people throughout history, including the United States and its leaders. Consider the most recent example in Iraq. Our occupying force has killed over 100,000 innocent Iraqi civilians. This is state terrorism at its worst and it needs to end. With our resources, the United States could become a humanitarian force. Sadly, the Neocons have chosen guns over butter (using our tax dollars and a mountain of borrowed money) to a shameless degree, enraging many of us who still have a social conscience.

Do as we say, not as we do….

Just as some Islamic fundamentalists wield religion as a weapon, the morally bankrupt aristocracy of the United States utilizes religion as a tool of war. Employing the power of spiritual manipulation to muster the support of their minions of extremist Christians, the authors of the Project for the New American Century mobilized enough popular support to invade a nation which had not harmed the United States, to eradicate the poor in New Orleans through passive mass murder and a Diaspora, to sell our children's future by committing to $8 trillion worth of debt to power their war machine, to cut taxes on the rich, and to increase war spending while cutting spending on programs which benefit humanity.

I hate to burst the bubble of those still deluded enough to accept the false premise (advanced by the Bush Regime) that we are a Christian nation embroiled in a modern day crusade against the followers of an Islamic religion which teaches them to hate democracy and brutally violate human rights. Here is a dose of reality. Over the last century, this "good Christian nation" and our friends in Israel have slaughtered, murdered, and tortured millions of Islamic people, both directly and indirectly (through proxy dictators). In contrast, Islamic murders of Americans, Christians and Jews are a relative drop in the bucket. Rather than "spreading freedom and democracy", Bush has the United States spreading imperialism, torture, and murder of innocent civilians. Saddam Hussein’s removal from power was a mere sideshow. If the United States was so concerned with its moral obligation to remove a ruthless dictator from power, there were many others they could have targeted. It was oil, power, and increased security for our terrorist proxy occupying Palestine that motivated the United States to invade Iraq.

Speaking of concern for human rights and humanitarian intervention, when is the United States going to stop funding Israel and launch an invasion against them to stop the Palestinian genocide? When groups like Hamas have the audacity to resist oppression and murder, Americans and Israelis label them as "terrorists". Now that Hamas is the democratically elected ruling party of the PA, the United States has elected to cut its aid to the Palestinians, a people who are already wallowing in the misery of Israeli-inflicted poverty and racial extermination. (As a side note, the Israelis are able to inflict genocide on the Palestinians because of the obscene amounts of financial and military aid they receive from the United States). To add insult to injury, Israel has determined that they can once again disregard international law by withholding the Palestinian tax revenues they collect (the Palestinians’ chief source of income). As is typical, the United States and its proxy are free to violate treaties, international laws, UN mandates, and humanitarian standards with impunity while applying the same laws to the rest of the world to the nth degree.

How about calling us a pluralistic nation with freedom of religion?

The notion that the United States is a Christian nation is false on numerous levels. Certainly we are heavily influenced Christianity, but to say we are a Christian nation flies in the face of the raison de’ etre of America.

Consider the following:

1. According to the 1990 US Census, 91.6% of Americans were Christians. By 2000, the percentage had decreased to 85%. We 42 million “heathens” represent a pretty significant portion of the population.

2. Many of the Western Europeans who settled the original thirteen colonies fled their nations of origin to evade religious persecution and state-imposed religions.

3. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, two of our most prominent Founding Fathers, were Deists. Washington and Jefferson were not particularly religious but tended more toward Deism than Christianity.

4. Thomas Paine, whose writings were a powerful catalyst for the American Revolution, vehemently attacked Christianity in one of his polemical works and refused to embrace Christianity, even on his death-bed.

5. God is not mentioned in our Constitution. The Declaration of Independence simply mentions "Nature's God" and a "Creator", neither of which specifically imply a Christian god.

6. Per the Treaty of Tripoli, endorsed by President John Adams and ratified unanimously by the US Senate in 1797: "As the Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion..."

7. If Christians lay claim to the United States as their nation, that means they bear the sole responsibility for the evils of slavery, the virtual annihilation of the Native Americans, and the many acts of state terror perpetrated by the US military and CIA over the years.

8. In 1864, the equivalent of today's Religious Right cowed Congress into passing legislation mandating that the US begin stamping "In God We Trust" on several of our coins. Besides caving to the powerful influence of Christian fundamentalists, our federal government also recognized the psychological boost the power of Christian symbolism would give them after the blow to their authority rendered by the Civil War.

9. McCarthy-inspired anti-Communist hysteria motivated Eisenhower to sign Public Law 140 in 1956. Going forward, all US coins and paper money bore the propagandistic slogan "In God We Trust" to reassure Americans that we were better than the godless Communists. The same year, the words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. It took 180 years for this Christian nation to fully embrace its identity. Or perhaps it simply took our plutocratic rulers that long to recognize the power of spiritual coercion….

As an aside, the original motto on the United States was E Pluribus Unum (Latin for “Out of many, one”), which obviously encourages more unity and cohesion than an exclusionary national motto dedicated to a god worshipped by one segment of the population.

Sleeping like babies….

Aside from the power of radical Christianity to subjugate the masses, this disturbing perversion of healthy spirituality does come with an added “benefit”. It enables its devotees to support politicians who rob from the poor to give to the rich, who wage murderous and imperialist wars to enrich the military industrial complex, and who allow their corporate collaborators to blatantly abuse employees, consumers, and the environment. Thanks to the salve provided to their consciences by "knowing" they live in a Christian, morally superior nation (not to mention the security provided by their "guaranteed blissful after-life"), the mélange of groups and people comprising the extreme Religious Right can swear their allegiance to a group of monstrous human beings without feeling a twinge of guilt.

As many of my antagonists have pointed out, I am not without limitations (and I do not claim to be). Remaining in the United States to wage a non-violent struggle for human rights and social justice virtually assures that I will be a party to enabling the US war machine and corporatocracy in some way. Besides the fact that I pay federal taxes (fairly unavoidable for a working class family person), buy some products from grossly corrupt corporations (albeit as few as possible), and have my share of personal spiritual struggles, my other glaring sin is the hostility I harbor toward the enemies of humanity sitting atop the throne of power in our nation. However, even Jesus himself directed outrage at the money-changers and legalistic religious leaders of his day. If someone of his moral capacity directed anger at the corrupt establishment, who am I to presume I could overcome my rancor against the malevolent forces comprising the United States ruling elite? If their numerous crimes against humanity were not fanning the flames of my anger, I would no longer be breathing. My challenges are to prevent my ire from evolving into festering hatred or desire for revenge and to strive to maintain constructive anger (which motivates me to seek justice and positive change). That is a challenge to which I can rise, despite my human short-comings.

Please excuse my use of profanity above, but it felt so good to echo Cheney's choice sentiments back to him and his unwholesome cohorts. Meanwhile, send Satan a postcard on his vacation. Our imperialistic rulers do not need him to perpetrate their acts of profound moral depravity. They glide on the momentum generated by fanatical followers who believe they have the market cornered on morality and that Jesus will soon return to Earth as the ultimate WMD.

Jason Miller is a 39 year old sociopolitical essayist with a degree in liberal arts and an extensive self-education. When he is not spending time with his wife and three sons, doing research, or writing, he works as a loan counselor. He is a member of Amnesty International and an avid supporter of Oxfam International and Human Rights Watch. He welcomes responses at or comments on his blog, Thomas Paine’s Corner, at .

Lessons of Riyadh Book Fair

By Dr. Khaled Batarfi

This year’s Riyadh Book Fair was eventful — mostly unwelcome
events, though. Somehow, the fundamentalists found in it an
opportunity to flex their muscles and prove a point. They
wanted all to know that no matter how far we progress on the
road of women and minority rights, speech and press freedoms,
democracy and all, they are still in a strong position of
influence. But they went too far, this time.

According to press reports, members and volunteers of the
Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue
were in force everywhere. In the family days, where single men
are not allowed, they were the exception. Carrying sticks and
wielding religious authority, they went around telling women
to cover their faces, wear “abayas” (black cloak) over their
heads in one piece, rather than two — head scarf and body
cover. In some instances, they told salesmen in bookstands not
to smile or joke when talking to women. A man holding the hand
of his half-blind wife was told not to show affection in

When people tried to argue, in peaceful way, (there was no
alternative anyway!), they were harshly told to just follow
orders. Women were telling them that in Islam there are
different schools of thoughts. Only one says women should
cover their faces. Salesmen were trying to explain that they
are supposed to be nice to customers. A husband argued that he
was holding the hand of his wife, not a girl friend. Besides,
he explained, with her eye troubles, she could easily lose her
way in the crowded place. Nothing worked with these people.
They felt they were there to perform a strict divine duty, not
to convince people or convey messages.

During the same event, a number of Saudi intellectuals were
harassed, verbally, and almost physically. The fundamentalists
came early on, occupied most of the hall, and went on the
offensive as soon as the lecture started.

In the main lecture hall, a former minister and a number of
intellectuals were attacked for their known liberal views.
Then an aggressive group surrounded them threateningly. They
had to be rescued by security. In the women’s section, another
intellectual was threatened and verbally abused. One female
writer was taken home in tears.

These people didn’t come to listen, learn and discuss. They
came to teach lessons and make statements. They were not
prepared to take other views into consideration, or allow for
the possibility of misunderstanding, miscommunication or even
errors on their side. They were dealing with people from
positions of authority and influence — university professors,
schoolteachers and mosque imams.

This can’t be good, especially in such a gathering. In this
time and place, when the whole country is moving toward
modernity, globalization, democracy and reforms, we still have
people going around with sticks and unquestionable authority
to enforce their narrow view of the world. They only represent
a minority of the Muslim world but behave as though there is
no Islam but theirs.

As a result we get people doing what they are told regardless
of what they believe: Women wearing what they must at home and
something entirely different abroad, youth following the
strict rules when watched, and breaking all when alone; and a
whole society in a state of schizophrenia. We don’t have
cinemas but our satellite dishes can bring us the world’s best
and worst. We can’t mix in public, but many go from one party
to another. Single men cannot enter malls, but they find ways
to meet with girls behind closed doors. Banned books and
intellectual materials can always be had via the Net and from
neighboring countries, such as UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan,
Egypt and Yemen.

This is why most visitors to book fairs in Arab countries come
from Saudi Arabia. We hunt books that should have been
available at home, without having to travel around to get

We can’t go on like this. You can’t drive down two crossed
road at the same time. Either you decide to open your windows
to the winds or to live in a closed underground cave. You are
part of this world or you are not. Since you don’t have an
option anyway, better be serious and sincere about it.
Islam is about freedom and choice. You become Muslim with your
own free will. Then you choose to understand the message
according to any interpretation of the multiple madhabs and
their different schools of thought. To reduce the entire faith
to the narrow interpretations of a single school is simply

The experience of Riyadh Book Fair should alarm us. These
people crossed the most revered Islamic lines and they deserve
to be punished. We should make sure that no one else dared to
cross them again.

In the Mideast, beards are one up on the women

By Rami G. Khouri

Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star
newspaper, published throughout the Middle East with the International
Herald Tribune.

Beirut -- Nothing better captures the great contest that now defines the
Middle East than four telegenic characters who have crisscrossed the
region during the past few weeks: Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes, Khaled
Mashaal and Muqtada al-Sadr.

This would seem to be a match made in heaven: two powerful bearded Arab
politicos who wish to expand their efficient constituencies and militias
into governing systems that enhance the well-being of their fellow
citizens; and, two elegant and eloquent American women who combine the
bouncy enthusiasm of high school democracy cheerleaders with the more
daring inclination to engage in political genetic engineering in order to
enhance the well-being of Arab citizens and the security of Americans in
one magical move.

This happy ideological marriage has not happened.

Instead, Rice, the U.S. secretary of state and Hughes, President Bush's
communications consultant, preach democracy for Arabs in the morning, then
spend the afternoon fighting democratically elected Arabs. In response,
Arab political leaders like Mashaal, the head of Hamas' political bureau,
and al-Sadr, who leads a powerful Shiite movement and militia in Iraq,
increase their legitimacy and their impact through parallel routes. They
engage in politics by being more responsive and accountable to the needs
of their constituents, and they generate wider emotional and political
appeal by defying the United States and its policies and presence in the
Middle East.

So the American women lost ground to the bearded Arabs. This is due to the
simple reason that both the style and substance of Rice-Hughes policies
run sharply counter to the sentiments of ordinary Arabs, while
Mashaal-Sadr politics cater directly to ordinary people's obvious
emotional and political views.

I had the opportunity to experience the style of American diplomacy at a
gathering in Doha where Hughes spoke. She repeated the standard Bush
administration policy goals, but did so in a manner that was rather
condescending and insensitive. She failed to acknowledge many legitimate
Arab concerns, and preached to our region through the narrow lens of
post-Sept. 11 American hurt.

Fine for Texas barbecues, but bad news for Arab gatherings. My reaction to
her talk was that it was a disaster -- an example of public diplomacy
shooting itself in the foot, and hurting the United States' image among
Arabs rather than helping it. I asked perhaps 50 Arabs, Muslims, and even
some Americans at the gathering, and they all had the same view. Hughes'
aggressive, pedantic style makes us keep asking: Why does Washington keep
insulting us in this manner? Hughes is an impressive person; her
speechwriters are diplomatic nitwits.

The equally problematic substance of Washington's policies is manifested
in Rice's recent trip to four Arab capitals. She seeks to persuade Arab
governments to quarantine Hamas and starve the Palestinian government of
aid funds until Hamas changes its views and actions vis-à-vis Israel. This
policy will clearly be rejected by all Arab governments, and may set back
U.S. standing in the region more than any other action in recent years,
perhaps even more than the unpopular Iraq war. This is because U.S.
opposition to Hamas touches and sharply inflames deep nerves that already
anchor widespread global skepticism about U.S. foreign policy.
The first is the sense that the United States is neither serious nor
consistent about promoting democracy.

The second is that the United States fights mightily against Arabs or
others in the region who try to manifest their identity through
expressions of indigenous, mainstream political Islamism.
The third is that Washington wages vigorous battles against any Arabs,
Muslims or others in the world who dare to resist Israel's occupation and
subjugation of Arabs.

The fourth is that Washington treats sovereign Arab governments with
contempt, expecting them to ignore their own public opinion and bend to
America's desires at the snap of a finger.

The fifth is that Washington reflexively parrots Israel's neurotic views
on Hamas, instead of waiting to see the policy of the new Palestinian
government that Hamas will head and then defining its policy response.
Not surprisingly, public opinion and election results throughout the
Middle East now favor mainstream Islamists. These groups succeed because
they simultaneously accept democratic pluralism, defy the United States,
resist Israeli occupation and colonization, and demand less corruption and
more efficient governance at home. Consequently, Mashaal's and al-Sadr's
travels around the Middle East last week are more like a victory lap than
anything else.

We must challenge some of their past behavior and future plans, to be
sure. But we must also admit that these Islamist leaders have more
legitimacy in the Middle East than all of Rice and Hughes' copious
democratic rhetoric and all the Marines in Mesopotamia put together.
What to do instead? Elected incumbents in Washington, Palestine, Iraq,
Iran, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere should engage honestly, to move toward a
common middle ground where Arab, Iranian, Turkish, European and
American policies could happily coexist.

This desired terrain would include indigenous religious and social values,
universal good governance standards, global principles that assert
national sovereignty and reject colonial occupation, and legitimate
leaders who have both the political credibility and the managerial
capacity to synchronize all these factors into sensible, sustainable
policies. High-profile U.S. officials should explore this more humane,
mutually beneficial approach during their visits to our convoluted lands,
rather than mainly lecture and offend us.

The score up till now: bearded Arabs 1, American women 0.

What to Do When the Emperor Has No Clothes

By Garrison Keillor

These are troubling times for all of us who love this country,
as surely we all do, even the satirists. You may poke fun at
your mother, but if she is belittled by others it burns your
bacon. A blowhard French journalist writes a book about
America that is full of arrogant stupidity, and you want to
let the air out of him and mail him home flat. And then you
read the paper and realize the country is led by a man who
isn't paying attention, and you hope that somebody will poke
him. Or put a sign on his desk that says, "Try much harder."

Do we need to impeach him to bring some focus to this man's
life? The Feb. 27 issue of The New Yorker carries an article
by Jane Mayer about a loyal conservative Republican and U.S.
Navy lawyer, Albert Mora, and his resistance to the torture of
prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. From within the Pentagon
bureaucracy, he did battle against Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld and John Yoo, who then was at the Justice Department,
and shadowy figures taking orders from Vice President Dick
"Gunner" Cheney, arguing America had ratified the Geneva
Convention that forbids cruel, inhumane and degrading
treatment of prisoners, and so it has the force of law. They
seemed to be arguing that President Bush has the right to
order prisoners to be tortured.

One such prisoner, Mohamed al-Qahtani, was held naked in
isolation under bright lights for months, threatened by dogs,
subjected to unbearable noise volumes and otherwise abused, so
that he begged to be allowed to kill himself. When the Senate
approved the Torture Convention in 1994, it defined torture as
an act "specifically intended to inflict severe physical or
mental pain or suffering."

Is the law a law or is it a piece of toast?

Wiretap surveillance of Americans without a warrant? Great. Go
for it. How about turning over American ports to a country
more closely tied to Sept. 11, 2001, than Saddam Hussein was?
Fine by me. No problem. And what about the war in Iraq? Hey,
you're doing a heck of a job. No need to tweak a thing. And
your blue button-down shirt--it's you.

But torture is something else. Most people agree with this,
and in a democracy that puts the torturers in a delicate
position. They must make sure to destroy their e-mails and
have subordinates who will take the fall. Because it is
impossible to keep torture secret. It goes against the
American grain and it eats at the conscience of even the most
disciplined, and in the end the truth will come out. It is
coming out now.

Our adventure in Iraq, at a cost of billions, has brought that
country to the verge of civil war while earning us more
enemies than ever before. And tax money earmarked for security
is being dumped into pork-barrel projects anywhere somebody
wants their own SWAT team. Detonation of a nuclear bomb within
our borders--pick any big city--is a real possibility, as much
so now as five years ago. Meanwhile, many Democrats have
conceded the very subject of security and positioned
themselves as Guardians of Our Forests and Benefactors of
Waifs and Owls, neglecting the most basic job of government,
which is to defend this country. The peaceful lagoon that is
the White House is designed for the comfort of a vulnerable
man. Perfectly understandable, but not what is needed now. The
U.S. Constitution provides a simple, ultimate way to hold him
to account for war crimes and the failure to attend to the
country's defense. Impeach him and let the Senate hear the