Staying Sane by Nixing the News

I have enjoyed scribbling here over the past year, jabbing my foil at the bulging gut of the war machine, but it has been tiring. Chronicling the loss of life and liberty week after week can definitely cramp one’s pursuit of happiness. So, I spent the last week of 2003 hounding cheer, swilling spirits, and ignoring the misery-makers to the best of my ability.

Even in this merry abandon, however, I felt compelled to remain at least better informed than the most powerful man on earth. What a drag: just skimming the Web a few minutes a day was enough to send me scrambling for more high-bourbon eggnog. On Christmas morning came bad tidings from the colonies. Okinawa police reported a nine-year high in crimes committed by U.S. occupation forces, and they weren’t even counting December. Hey, a rape here, a murder there—boys will be boys. According to the Kyodo News Agency, “Most of the crimes were committed while under the influence of alcohol between midnight and predawn, leading the police to urge the public to return home by midnight.” Democracy, whiskey, sexy indeed.

The following day, an estimated 35,000 people died in an earthquake in Iran. Natural disaster? Columnist Brendan O’Neill doesn’t think so:

“This is a strange way to make sense of what happened in Bam. It wasn’t man’s folly, or the Bam residents’ ignorance of the ‘rule of nature’ that allowed the quake to have such devastating consequences. Rather, it is the fact that the people of Bam are forced to live at nature’s mercy that leaves them open to such terror. It is the developing world’s reliance on nature, rather than its ignorance of nature, that makes it potential prey for this thing we call ‘Mother Nature’s fury.’”

O’Neill notes that the earthquake of equal intensity that struck California days earlier killed only two people. What gives?

“Many commentators have pointed the finger of blame at the Iranian authorities, for failing to modernize buildings and implement construction codes – and no doubt that is true.

“But we also live in a world that is increasingly hostile to all-out development and the application of new technologies. The buzzwords today are ‘sustainable development’ and ‘appropriate technology,’ where it is argued that development must happen slowly and ‘in sync’ with nature and the environment.”

O’Neill is referring, of course, to a leftist species of progressive imperialism, the kind that would ban DDT in the world’s malarial ghettoes. He’s right, and I love kicking lefty busybodies, too, but something more than the anti-capitalist mentality is at work here. Try right-wing progressive imperialism, the starve-‘em-till-they’re-free variety that killed hundreds of thousands in Iraq during the ‘90s and has strengthened Fidel Castro’s dictatorship for decades.

More on that later. On Dec. 28, the New York Times ran a follow-up to the Toledo Blade’s chilling series on Tiger Force atrocities in Vietnam. The Blade detailed a 1967 terrorist campaign by the U.S. Army in which hundreds of civilians (women, children, and elderly included) were tortured, burned alive, and shot for sport, their corpses desecrated and carved up for souvenirs. The Times spoke to three of the veterans involved, who stressed that theirs was not merely a second My Lai:

“[T]hey wanted to make another point: that Tiger Force had not been a ‘rogue’ unit. Its members had done only what they were told, and their superiors knew what they were doing.

“‘The story that I’m not sure is getting out,’ said [Rion] Causey, then a medic with the unit, ‘is that while they’re saying this was a ruthless band ravaging the countryside, we were under orders to do it.’”

Not that any of this is relevant today:

“The tactics — particularly in ‘free-fire zones,’ where anyone was regarded as fair game — arose from the frustrating nature of the guerrilla war and, above all, from the military’s reliance on the body count as a measure of success and a reason officers were promoted, according to many accounts.”

Iraq may be a frustrating guerrilla war where anyone is fair game—but at least we don’t do body counts anymore. Let’s just hope that the new crop of vets comes home a little less damaged. Here’s former Sgt. William Doyle in what’s described as “a long, profanity-laced telephone conversation”:

“‘I’ve seen atrocities in Vietnam that make Tiger Force look like Sunday school,’ said Mr. Doyle, who joined the Army at 17 when a judge gave him, a young street gang leader, a chance to escape punishment.

“‘If you’re walking down a jungle trail, those that hesitate die,’ said Mr. Doyle, who lives in Missouri. ‘Everybody I killed, I killed to survive. They make Tiger Force out to be an atrocity. Well, that’s almost a compliment. Because nobody will understand the evil I’ve seen.’”

By the time I finished that article, I’d had my fill of retro. Surely, some of our more recent interventions were going well. Next headline: “Serb Rightists Are Big Winners, but Not Enough to Rule,” also from Dec. 28. Seems old Slobodan was elected to Serbia’s parliament, as was fellow Hague-mate Vojislav Seselj, whose Radical Party won a plurality of seats. Whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout “de-Ba’athification”?

“The Radical Party’s strong performance reflects a trend across the region. Hard-line nationalists who led their countries during the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 have now returned to power in Bosnia after elections in 2002, and most recently in Croatia, where the party of the former Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, has formed a government.”

Thank goodness I check daily, or I might have been as shocked as many of my ill-informed countrymen were, even those who were informed enough to notice Serbia’s elections. Our very own Nebojsa Malic, on Christmas day:

“Polls in Serbia are notoriously inaccurate, so it is not at all clear who might triumph in the parliamentary election three days from now. The Empire dreads and loathes the potential success of the Radicals, as do its friends and servants in Belgrade. Milosevic’s Socialists, allegedly finished, may win as many mandates as the late Djindjic’s Democratic Party. …

“It may be tempting to support certain people, parties and policies just because the Empire opposes them. That, unfortunately, does not mean their ideas and convictions are any good – just not good enough for Washington and Brussels. Whoever wins, a government will be elected; and it will have such power and influence over every aspect of life, yet be completely at the mercy of the Empire, that nothing good can come of it. But electing someone who does not dance to an outside tune could be a step in the right direction.”

Good news, bad news, who knows, but amusing either way. A rich vein of hilarity skirts the edges of despair. Consider the plight of Israeli occupiers in the West Bank, chased about by monster rats of their own making. No, not Hamas:

“The rats, lured by piles of garbage in Hebron’s streets, have become so daring they have even infiltrated military barracks and bitten at least two heavily armed combat soldiers – one in the ear and the other on the lip, the Israeli newspaper Maariv reported. …

“Hebron Mayor Mustafa Natche said garbage sometimes piles up in the Israeli-controlled area of the city for several days before Palestinian garbage collectors receive permission from the army to enter and clear it away.”

Speaking of critters, Lara Hayhurst exposed the true purpose of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) when she tried to bring her beloved Betta fish home for the holidays. Ms. Hayhurst, a Pace University dorm resident, cleared her pet with airport security weeks earlier and got approval from the airline upon arriving at LaGuardia. TSA goons, however, refused to let her board with this deadly weapon, despite reassurances from airline personnel that they allowed such carry-ons. The TSA supervisor commanded the visibly upset Ms. Hayhurst to dispose of her fish.

Now, at this point, this may sound like just another tale of callous bureaucrats enforcing ridiculous rules. Irritating, sure, but nothing new. But there’s more.

Ms. Hayhurst took the fish to the restroom, then returned to the X-ray line in tears a few minutes later. The TSA agents demanded to know what she had done with her pet. She sobbed that she had flushed it, and she was on her way.

The fish was in her backpack. The TSA agents sent no one to witness the disposal, nor did they check her bag for contraband. In other words, they had no genuine concerns, however moronic, about the package or the passenger: they simply wanted to flaunt their authority to a citizen they had pegged as submissive. I can only imagine the grins that came over those fat thugs’ Twinkie-crusted lips as they recounted their triumph during hourly snack breaks. I hope they choked when they read Ms. Hayhurst’s essay.

The transportation cops didn’t exactly end the year on a promising note, especially in the cities hit on Sept. 11. On Sunday, a private plane violated LaGuardia’s airspace and flirted with the Statue of Liberty. That evening, a drunken Brooklyn man jumped aboard an empty bus at the Port Authority and drove it to a terminal at Kennedy Airport. Not to be outdone, the TSA chief at Dulles was charged with driving under the influence early New Year’s morning. He was arrested an hour before his shift ended—while the country was on Orange Code alert.

But a bit of good news finally broke on the last day of 2003, when omens of détente with Iran began to appear. Michael Ledeen and co. must have winced as Treasury Secretary John Snow announced a 90-day easing of restrictions on aid to the stricken country:

“Snow called it a ‘top priority’ to bring relief to the region, and a White House spokesman, Trent Duffy, said that the Iranian people ‘deserve and need’ international assistance.”

All well and good, of course, but as Brendan O’Neill pointed out, the people of Iran don’t need relief after disasters, and they certainly don’t need an invasion; they need development. And that means commerce, what the great classical liberal Richard Cobden called “the grand panacea“:

“Those who, from an eager desire to aid civilisation, wish that Great Britain should interpose in the dissensions of neighbouring states, would do wisely to study, in the history of their own country, how well a people can, by the force and virtue of native elements, and without external assistance of any kind, work out their own political regeneration: they might learn too, by their own annals, that it is only when at peace with other states that a nation finds the leisure for looking within itself, and discovering the means to accomplish great domestic ameliorations.

“To those generous spirits we would urge, that, in the present day, commerce is the grand panacea, which, like a beneficent medical discovery, will serve to inoculate with the healthy and saving taste for civilisation all the nations of the world.”

Make consumer goods, not war. Though most indications point in the opposite direction, here’s to a prosperous and peaceful 2004.