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The Benefit of the Dumb

Rigorous Intuition | March 8 2005

Blessed is the state that hides its most egregious crimes behind the smokescreen of incompetance.

Consider the attempted assassination of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena.

Pier Scolari, Sgrena's partner, said yesterday "either this was an ambush, as I think, or we are dealing with imbeciles or terrorized kids who shoot at anyone." Since the latter has already been tragically demonstrated many times over in Iraq (graphically evidenced here), it makes an almost plausible explanation of what befell Sgrena's car, and a consoling fable to those who still balk at the notion that the United States has deliberately targetted journalists in Iraq. Which may very well be why the attempt on her life was made in this fashion.

Much of the world, and certainly much of Italy, has no qualms about assessing the contrary claims and evidence, and finding for intention. Most Americans, who lack a curious press in all but the most regrettable sense, will swallow their military's explanation, priding themselves on the fact that President Bush has promised an investigation, and presume the Italians were barrelling through a checkpoint. What did they expect, for Pete's sake? They had it coming.

The official line says that Sgrena's car ran a checkpoint at high speed. But "it wasn't a checkpoint," says Sgrena, and they weren't shot by sentries. It was "a patrol that started shooting after pointing some lights in our direction...we didn't understand where the shots came from.'' The car was only 700 metres from the airport, "which means that they had passed all checkpoints," adds Scolari.

The military contends it was uninformed about the progress of the negotions for her release, and was unaware Sgrena was on her way. But "the Americans and Italians knew about (her) car coming," Scolari says.

The US has the troops first firing warning shots, then shooting into the engine block to stop the vehicle. The Italians say they were hit by hundreds of bullets. The Observer reports up to 400 rounds struck their car "from an armoured vehicle. Rather than calling immediately for assistance for the wounded Italians, the soldiers' first move was to confiscate their weapons and mobile phones and they were prevented from resuming contact with Rome for more than an hour." Sgrena's car, the US claims, is now "lost," and cannot be inspected.)

And what should we think of this: if the US forces regarded the vehicle as a threat, why did its driver escape unscathed? The only fatality was secret service agent Nicola Calipari, who "was killed as he threw his body across Sgrena." He died instantly, struck in the temple.

Before the invasion began, Kate Adie, then of the BBC, reported she had been told by a Pentagon official that any [satellite] uplinks by journalists would be fired on" by US aircraft. The message couldn't be clearer: Embed or die.

Robert Fisk, had this to say in April, 2003, about the deaths of several colleagues:

First the Americans killed the correspondent of al-Jazeera yesterday and wounded his cameraman. Then, within four hours, they attacked the Reuters television bureau in Baghdad, killing one of its cameramen and a cameraman for Spain's Tele 5 channel and wounding four other members of the Reuters staff.
...
Back in 2001, the United States fired a cruise missile at al-Jazeera's office in Kabul – from which tapes of Osama bin Laden had been broadcast around the world. No explanation was ever given for this extraordinary attack on the night before the city's "liberation"; the Kabul correspondent, Taiseer Alouni, was unhurt. By the strange coincidence of journalism, Mr Alouni was in the Baghdad office yesterday to endure the USAF's second attack on al-Jazeera.

Far more disturbing, however, is the fact that the al-Jazeera network – the freest Arab television station, which has incurred the fury of both the Americans and the Iraqi authorities for its live coverage of the war – gave the Pentagon the co-ordinates of its Baghdad office two months ago and received assurances that the bureau would not be attacked.

The year 2004 was the bloodiest on record for journalists, with much thanks to US forces in Iraq. How many of those deaths can incompetence explain? And when does Eason Jordan get back his job?

George W Bush makes the perfect empty suit to shoulder the case for ineptitude. Since such a man is titular Commander in Chief, it's no great stretch to imbue the US military with his characteristic imbecility. But that would be to presume a couple of things true, which I think are not: that Bush truly commands, and that chaos and ruin are never the intended result of US policy.

It may feel good to call Bush and his team miserable failures, yet they've stolen two presidential elections and a midterm, have dug into Iraq and the Caspian basin, and are looting the Treasury without obstruction. They may be failures in our eyes, but we're judging them on the terms of our values, while theirs can appear to us upside down. And we need to regard more than the surface of things, to make sense of their actions, and how they judge success.

For instance, the Bush White House is clearly bankrupting America: is that by accident, or design? Does it demonstrate incompent management, or is it the intentional manufacture of a crisis, to crash the system and create a larcenous Year Zero?

What makes us feel better, and which is more likely true: that they don't know what they're doing, or they do?

Here are two excerpts from Sgrena's work, which may speak to motive. First, a July, 2004 interview with a woman tortured in Abu Ghraib:

I asked her if she was held on her own all the time. 'No. It was then that they put me in a cell with other women, two women per cell. There were thirteen women, mainly wives of men belonging to the previous regime, and seven children. There was even the wife of Sabah Merza, one of Saddam's guards in the 1970s, who kept her hands plunged in ice to soothe the pain caused by the torture that had been inflicted on her. Another woman was in really bad shape: they'd kept hurling her against the wall. Another had been locked in a tiny cage for six days and couldn't even move. One of the prisoners had been forced to walk on all fours and her knees and elbows were in a terrible state. Another woman had been forced to separate faeces from urine, using her own hands. The soldiers frequently forced us to drink water from the toilet bowl. A woman of sixty, who had said she was a virgin, was continually threatened with rape.'

Did you know of cases of rape? 'Yes, but I'm not going to go into that. In our society, it's something you don't talk about.' How old were the women prisoners? 'Between forty and sixty years of age.' And what about children, how were they treated? 'We heard them screaming. They were tortured too. Mostly dogs were set on them.'

And last November, in Fallujah:

"We buried them, but we could not identify them because they were charred from the napalm bombs used by the Americans." People from Saqlawiya village, near Falluja, told al Jazeera television, based in Qatar, that they helped bury 73 bodies of women and children completely charred, all in the same grave. The sad story of common graves, which started at Saddam’s times, is not yet finished. Nobody could confirm if napalm bombs have been used in Falluja, but other bodies found last year after the fierce battle at Baghdad airport were also completely charred and some thought of nuclear bombs. No independent source could verify the facts, since all the news arrived until now are those spread by journalists embedded with the American troops, who would only allow British and American media to enrol with them. But the villagers who fled in the last few days spoke of many bodies which had not been buried: it was too dangerous to collect the corpses during the battle.

As she was released, Sgrena's captors - whoever they were - warned her to take care, because "there are Americans who don't want you to go back."

An independent foreign journalist, witness to numerous war crimes, writing for a communist paper. Would the killers and heirs of killers of nuns, Kennedys and Kings blink an eye at targetting such a person?

Sgrena's ambush was a colossal mistake, only because she survived it.


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