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Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Vacation reading: lessons from Algeria and Sacramento

I've been avoiding both TV and newspapers so far on my vacation, but reading the local weekly I found two articles worth quoting. The first was an article by Nicholas von Hoffman entitled "Who Gets the Blame For Dirty Tactics in Iraq?" You're undoubtedly familiar with the basic theme that those ultimately responsible for activities at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are escaping scot-free, but the more interesting (to me) part was where von Hoffman discusses a new book entitled My Battle of Algiers, by Ted Morgan. Here's an excerpt:
Prior to the Algerian war, terror--that is, the deliberate slaughter of civilians--had been mostly a tactic employed by what are sometimes called "advanced nations." In World War II, the Germans did it--followed in short order by the British and the Americans. After the French massacred Algerians by shooting them through the bars of the jails, insurgents placed bombs in cafés, clubs and ocean resorts.
It wasn't long before Frenchmen, fighting in a war they had no use for, were exacting atrocities on the other side. Mr. Morgan tells of an incident that, one suspects, has probably been played out in Iraq more than once these past three years:
"The fellagha (insurgent) had been strung up with his wrists tied over a horizontal beam, so that his feet didn't touch the ground. He wore a khaki uniform without rank or insignia. His coarse black hair was cut short, and he had a bushy beard and a mustache. His gaze was more defiant than fearful.
"I asked him his name, but he did not reply. 'Ask him the location of his base camp,' Lastours (Mr. Morgan's commanding office) said. I asked him, and he did not reply.
"'Ask him a bit more forcefully,' Lastours said.
"I punched him hard in the stomach.

"'Hakarabi. Makache,' the man said. 'I swear I don't know.' I hit him again. 'Hakarabi. Makache.' Then something happened to me. I started to lose it. I was in an altered state, where my mental processes broke down. It was as if the scene had been rehearsed and choreographed. My role was to punch him, and his role was to repeat his line. This went on for about two minutes, and then he stopped repeating.
"Lastours felt his pulse and said, 'He's dead. And he didn't talk.'
"I was horrified by what I had done. I had killed a defenseless man. I had not intended to kill him, but that didn't make him any less dead.
"'Place me under arrest,' I said.
"'Don't be ridiculous,' Lastours said. 'When you go to the hamam [steam bath], you sweat, and in war there are losses. It's the logic of things. I'll find a couple of men to bury him.'"
The second article was one by Marc Cooper discussing the recent California state Democratic convention in Sacramento. Most of it is about how conventions are stage-managed, and "insurgency" carefully controlled, but the more interesting (again, to me) part is where he discusses the relationship of the Democrats to big business. We're used to that theme on a national level, but this is an insight as to how it plays out on a local level:
Apart from the ubiquitous teachers' and public employees' unions, the official sponsors of this year's convention of the Party of the Little Guy included: Verizon, AT&T, Health Net, Mercury Insurance and a handful of Indian gambling tribes. Among them are the two most virulently anti-labor tribes in the state: the Morongos and the Agua Caliente. The latter, known among its critics as the Wal-Mart tribe, has been spending bundles to defeat an organizing drive by the hotel workers union while simultaneously forcing much of its low-wage work force to seek public assistance for health care. The tribe, however, "sponsors" a whole team of Democratic pols with it bottomless millions in political contributions.

The Speaker of the California Assembly, Fabian Nuñez, who had been prominently scheduled on the podium roster (his name was also printed boldly on the plastic pouch that held the delegates' credentials around their necks), turned out to be a no-show. He was tied up a few hours southwest of the convention site at the ultra-posh Pebble Beach golf resort, where he was being feted by all the little guys from AT&T.

Speaker Nuñez has been steadfastly defending the legislative interests of the telecommunications giant, which stands to make billions in a regulatory fight with the cable industry.

At the podium, decked out in one of his signature Brioni suits, the charismatic [Willie] Brown [former mayor of San Francisco and Assembly Speaker] lapped up the adulatory applause and humbly described himself as serving nowadays as nothing more than a simple "talk-show host." He forgot to mention that his day job is that of corporate lobbyist.

During last fall's special-election cycle in California, Brown pocketed several hundred thousand dollars as a strategist for Big Pharma--hired to head off a ballot prop that would have provided cheaper prescription drugs.

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