Monday, January 31, 2005

Sick to our Stomachs. Thanks, NYT

Bob Herbert wrote a column in Monday's NY Times that we did not find edifying. Normally we don't get too excited (or, uh, excitable) when we read something we disagree with, especially in the Times, but in light of the courageous acts of millions of Iraqis on Sunday, we think we might be experiencing a little righteous indignation. It's not that Herbert plays the Chicken-Little-the-sky-is-falling-in-Iraq card (he does); it's that he starts out the piece acknowledging the power of the statement made by the Iraqi people, but only as a rhetorical device, using it as a setup for his grand reveal of how things "really are."

You'd have to be pretty hardhearted not to be moved by the courage of the millions of Iraqis who insisted on turning out to vote yesterday despite the very real threat that they would be walking into mayhem and violent death at the polls.

At polling stations across the country there were women in veils holding the hands of children, and men on crutches, and people who had been maimed during the terrible years of Saddam, and old people. Among those lined up to vote in Baghdad was Samir Hassan, a 32-year-old man who lost a leg in the blast of a car bomb last year. He told a reporter, "I would have crawled here if I had to."

In a war with very few feel-good moments, yesterday's election would qualify as one. But (ah, yes, the magical BUT) as with any positive development in Iraq, this one was riddled with caveats. For one thing, dozens of people were, in fact, killed in election day attacks. And shortly after the polls closed, a British military transport plane crashed northwest of Baghdad.

So there was no respite from the carnage. (Mentioning the crash seems to us to be quite the non sequitur. He might as well list all the traffic accidents in Baghdad -- no respite from the carnage!)

And we should keep in mind that despite the feelings of pride and accomplishment experienced by so many of the voters, yesterday's election was hardly a textbook example of democracy in action. A real democracy requires an informed electorate. What we saw yesterday was an uncommonly brave electorate. But it was woefully uninformed.

Much of the electorate was voting blind. Half or more of those who went to the polls believed they were voting for a president. They weren't. They were electing a transitional national assembly that will have as its primary task the drafting of a constitution. The Washington Post noted that because of the extreme violence that preceded the election "almost none of the 7,700 candidates for the National Assembly campaigned publicly or even announced their names."

It's interesting that Herbert quotes the Washington Post directly but fails to reveal his source for his claim that "half or more" Iraqis went to the poll thinking they were voting for a president. Not that we wouldn't give Herbert the benefit of the doubt -- it is the New York Times, after all (snicker) -- but if what he says is true, it's an important part of the story. If it's just his conjecture, it's very disingenuous.
The desire of the U.S., as embodied by the Bush administration, is to exercise as much control as possible over the Middle East and its crucial oil reserves. There is very little concern here about the plight of ordinary Iraqis, which is why the horrendous casualties being suffered by Iraqi civilians, including women and children, get so little attention.
Yes, yes, no blood for oil. We got the memo. It's one thing to spout it while commenting on a Kos post; it's quite another to print it -- completely unsubstantiated and unsupported -- in our nation's "paper of record."
In large swaths of the country, death at the hands of insurgents seems always just moments away. It's also extremely easy for innocent Iraqis to get blown away by Americans. That can occur if drivers get too close - or try to pass - an American military convoy. Or if confusion arising from language barriers, or ignorance of the rules, or just plain nervousness results in an unfortunate move by a vehicle at a checkpoint. Or if someone objects too vociferously to degrading treatment by U.S. forces. Or if someone is simply suspected, wrongly, of being an insurgent.
Now Herbert alleges U.S. soldiers of killing -- no, "blowing away" Iraqis for arguing or looking suspicious. Again, it would be nice if these were backed up by any facts. Herbert supplies none, leaving us to assume that he does not possess them. In light of the job our forces did in preventing carnage at the polls Sunday, this is shameful.

Crime in many areas is completely out of control. Kidnapping for ransom, including the kidnapping of children, is ubiquitous. Carjackings are commonplace. Rape and murder are widespread.

Sounds like New York City! But joking aside, Herbert's broad generalizations (once again, absent of anything to support them) are a hallmark of poor writing and would incur the wrath of our sixth grade English teacher. But not, apparently, any editor at the New York Times.

It appears that Herbert wrote this column prior to the election, and then was forced to amend it after its unexpected (at least to him) success. So he tacked on some paragraphs at the beginning, then left the rest, and in so doing, turned a bad column into an indefensible one.

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