"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Americans are preparing for the long, arduous and necessary task of bringing the perpetrators of Tuesday’s unspeakable horror to justice. But as we do so, we must also ask ourselves why this happened — and why it might happen again. Striking back at those who have viciously attacked us is a first step. But if we don’t address the underlying reasons why we were attacked, we will invite more hatred, and in the end more attacks. We can turn our country into Fortress America, but no fortress can defend against zealots willing to die. In the end our best, our only real defense will be winning the hearts and minds of those who hate us.
Of course, some of those minds neither can nor should be won. Some people from less fortunate nations hate America because it is the world’s only military and economic superpower. Others detest us because of our all-conquering culture. Others see us as godless infidels simply because we don’t subscribe to their psychotic version of Islam. There is nothing we can or should do about any of these things.
Those who carried out Tuesday’s attacks were clearly driven, in large part, by religious fanaticism. The perpetrators were Arab terrorists, linked to the Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden and his followers are zealous Muslims who regard America as the enemy of Islam, and therefore an entity of essentially metaphysical evil. There is nothing we can or should do to lessen the medieval fury of such monomania. Bin Laden’s zealots’ hatred for America is an article of faith: nothing will change it.
But as we look down the long, dangerous road that lies ahead, we must remember that there is one specific grievance that rankles in the breasts of millions of Arab and Islamic people in the world. And until that grievance is resolved, there is a greater possibility that one of those people will decide to strike a terrible blow at the United States.
The critical issue is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a conflict in which the United States plays a reluctant central role. Until a just resolution of that conflict is realized — one that provides a homeland for the Palestinian people and security for Israel — it will be far more difficult for America to put together a truly committed coalition to fight terrorism, one that is not simply held together by coercion. And there is a far greater chance that military action against Islamic states will backfire, inflaming a significant portion of the world’s population against us and breeding thousands of terrorists where there once were dozens.
This is bin Laden’s master strategy. We cannot allow it to succeed.
To ensure that it does not, America must boldly take the lead in the Middle East. We must pressure Israel to take the concrete steps necessary to provide justice for the Palestinian people.
The Israeli government is incapable of taking such steps. The latest evidence came Friday, when, incredibly, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cancelled scheduled peace talks with Palestinian Authority president Yassir Arafat at the same time that he was launching Israel’s most aggressive military action in the last year against Palestinians. These are the actions of a man more interested in scoring political points by letting his adversary twist in the wind than in searching for peace. The Bush administration, which in the aftermath of the attacks had asked Sharon to get the peace talks moving again, was left in the usual American posture — wringing its hands impotently.
It’s time for this to change.
It is legitimate to ask whether shifting America’s Mideast policy, in the aftermath of a horrific terrorist attack, would not signal to terrorists that they had won. The answer is no. This is not appeasement, nor a surrender to our enemies. Moving toward a just resolution of the Middle East crisis, one that preserves Israel’s security while providing a nation for the Palestinians, is simply the right thing to do — as it was before Black Tuesday, and as it will be after we hunt down and bring to justice the evil men who made a cold-blooded decision to kill thousands of innocent people. The difference is that after Tuesday, doing the right thing has acquired a different urgency.
For far too long, the United States has pretended to stand on the sidelines of a conflict in which we are not neutral, passively endorsing a situation in which bottled-up Palestinian rage has grown and grown until it has exploded in a terrible paroxysm of violence, bringing horror to Israelis and Palestinians alike. And every day that the situation remains unresolved plants the seeds of more Arab and Islamic hatred — of Israel, and of Israel’s best friend, the United States. Tuesday’s horrific attack might have taken place even if Israel and the Palestinians were at peace. Nor would Mideast peace assure us that no more terrorist attacks would take place. But this we know: as long as millions of Islamic and Arab people hate America because of its Mideast policies, we will be in danger.
The plight of the Palestinians is the single most important issue to most Arabs. Professor Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland conducted a poll in which citizens of five nations — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates — were asked how important the Palestinian issue was to them personally. In four nations, 60 percent said it was the most important. In Egypt, reviled throughout the Arab world as the state that made peace with Israel, 79 percent said it was.
Nor are such sentiments confined to the Middle East. In small anti-U.S. demonstrations Sunday in Rawalpindi, Pakistan — the Muslim nation that is the key to our diplomatic and military efforts to apprehend bin Laden — demonstrators chanted slogans attacking the U.S. over the Palestinian issue.
What does this have to do with America? Everything. It is difficult for Americans, thousands of miles away from a conflict for which they feel no responsibility, to realize how people in the Middle East — indeed, in much of the Third World — view us. For many, perhaps most Arabs — including those in the moderate states, as well as that vast majority of the Arab world that is well disposed to the American people — America is virtually indistinguishable from Israel. The bitter joke in the region is that Israel isn’t a client state of the United States — the United States is a client state of Israel. The refugees in the squalid camps in Gaza may not know that Israel is the primary recipient of our foreign aid, receiving $2 billion annually in military aid, but they know Israel could not do what it’s doing without us. The jets that fire missiles into Palestinian buildings, the tanks and helicopter gunships that enforce Israeli control of the occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza, might as well have big pictures of Uncle Sam painted on the side.
And people ask, “Why do they hate us?”
If this were a case of good vs. evil, the righteous Israelis fighting for their survival against the evil Arabs, it would be a cause worth America enduring the hatred of millions of people. But it is not. No one in the world, aside from some segment of the Israeli public and, apparently, the U.S. government, believes this. The Third World doesn’t believe it. The United Nations doesn’t believe it. Our European allies don’t believe it. And most Americans don’t believe it — although in the horrifying spasm of mindless anti-Arab sentiment that is gripping the country now, who knows if that will continue to be true.
Let us be absolutely clear: if Israel is not a moral exemplar, neither are the Palestinians or the Arab states. There are no heroes and villains here. Nothing can condone the Palestinian terror attacks against Israel, any more than anything can condone the intransigence on both sides that has led to them. The day has long passed when anyone could seriously look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as anything but a train wreck, a horrifying collision in which every noble impulse and belief immediately runs into its opposite.
A people persecuted for thousands of years, subject to the most horrifying act of genocide visited upon any group in human history, finally finds a homeland where they can be free — only to discover that another group of people, with equal claim to the land, was already there.
Another impoverished and oppressed group of people, driven from their ancestral homes by an occupying force into wretched refugee camps, or left on the margins of the society created by that occupying force, turning in their desperation to religious fanaticism and suicidal violence.
On both sides, leaders without the courage to make peace. Decent men and women on both sides driven to hopelessness and hatred. And endless blood.
That is the situation. But it may still be possible to find a way out of this tragic deadlock — if America has the courage to step in. Only the United States has the power to broker a deal that will provide lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. Hitherto, we have lacked the will to do so. Perhaps Tuesday’s horrific events will provide the impetus to find that will.
Exactly what the final form of a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians should or will take is impossible to say. Nor is ultimate success assured. The hatred and mistrust is deeper than ever; perhaps a point of no return has been reached. But the effort must be made. And the crucial initial step is obvious, as it has been for many years: Israel must immediately stop building new settlements in the occupied territories.
Freezing construction of new settlements is the critical step called for in this spring’s Mitchell Report on Mideast violence — a reasonable, even-handed document that assigned blame to both Israel and the Palestinians and was completely ignored by all parties, most glaringly the only one that had the power to make it happen, the United States.
Israel’s construction of settlements in the occupied territories taken in the 1967 war violates international law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, which, in the language of the Mitchell report, “prohibits Israel (as an occupying power) from establishing settlements in occupied territory pending an end to the conflict.” U.S. administrations from Reagan to the present have opposed the settlements. Their existence is the first point brought up by Palestinians in conversations about Israel.
It is true, as the Mitchell Report acknowledges, that the Palestinians bear their share of the blame for continuing to launch attacks against Israel. But playing the blame game at this point is a sterile exercise, and the stakes are Israeli and Palestinian lives. To break the cycle of violence a bold step must be taken. A freeze — or, better still, a freeze combined with a dismantling of existing settlements — would be the single most positive step Israel could take toward restoring trust between itself and the Palestinians. As an editorial in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said, “A government which seeks to argue that its goal is to reach a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians through peaceful means, and is trying at this stage to bring an end to the violence and terrorism, must announce an end to construction in the settlements.”
There should be no illusions that this by itself would bring peace. Although most Israelis agree that no new settlements should be built, months of bloody terror have eroded their trust in the Palestinians. And they are led by Ariel Sharon, a hard-liner who knows no response to terror but counter-terror. Sharon has refused to stop building the settlements, saying he does not want to reward Palestinian violence and citing security concerns. But until the Palestinians are given genuine hope, there will be no security for Israel.
Faced with this stalemate, the Bush administration has done nothing — not only on the settlement issue, but on anything relating to the Middle East. Fearing it will humiliatingly fail as the Clinton administration failed before it, it skulks haplessly on the sidelines. The mightiest country in the world is reduced to mumbling earnestly, “The cycle of violence must stop,” as bombs keep exploding and people keep dying.
It’s time for America to start throwing its weight around — not just with the Islamic states like Pakistan that offer second-hand harbor to terrorists, but with Israel. There should be no great difficulty in getting the Israelis to do what we want: Just tell them that if they don’t, we won’t give them any more money. It’s remarkable how persuasive $3 billion a year can be, the total amount of military and civilian aid we lavish on our Mideast partner.
At the same time as we lean on the Israelis, we also must squeeze Arafat. The Palestinian leader and those who follow him must be told that further outbreaks of violence will abrogate the whole deal. And he must also be told that at the end of the day (and it’s going to be a very short day) the Palestinian people are not going to get significantly more than what they almost got at Camp David — that tragic missed opportunity for whose failure, as incisive articles in the New York Times and the Aug. 9 New York Review of Books have demonstrated, Arafat, Barak, and Clinton must all shoulder the blame.
The U.S. must give the Palestinians muscular assurance that their basic needs as a sovereign state will be met. Those needs are summed up by Rob Malley and Hussein Agha in the New York Review of Books: “a viable, contiguous Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital and sovereignty over its Muslim and Christian holy sites; meaningful sovereignty; and a just settlement of the refugee issue.”
But just as the Israelis must give something up, so too must the Palestinians. There is no other realistic path to peace. They will not get everything they want. They must be told that they will not get universal right of return for all those Palestinians who were displaced by the creation of the state of Israel, or control of all of the West Bank or Jerusalem.
Arafat is a gravely flawed leader, torn between realism and maximalist mythology. After he failed to embrace the imperfect but viable solution offered by Barak and Clinton at Camp David, even many liberal Israelis concluded that he was not seriously interested in making peace. But he is a better partner than anyone else on the horizon. And a bold American move at this crucial moment — with Arab leaders realizing that after Tuesday, the rules of the game have changed forever — could shake Arafat, and the moderate frontline Arab states, out of their anti-American posturing and into constructive action. Neither the PLO nor any Arab state wants a future in which a deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian conflict breeds endless terrorism, which in turn unleashes the full might of American military force against the Arab world.
As for the Israelis, the deal would also guarantee that America would stand behind their core demands. Those are, again in Malley and Agha’s words, “its continued existence as a Jewish state; genuine security; Jewish Jerusalem as its recognized capital; respect and acknowledgment of its connection to holy Jewish sites.”
Would America be putting Israel at risk by, in effect, forcing it to blink first? Not if America stood behind its words. If the Palestinian Authority in the interim period towards full statehood proved unable or unwilling to control radical rejectionists, America would stand behind Israel in its retaking of the occupied territory previously ceded to the Palestinians. In effect, everything would return to the previous, bloody status quo.
And if there is some risk in the deal — so what? The situation now is intolerable.
There is, of course, no guarantee that this plan would succeed. But it would be a way of breaking the bloody deadlock in the region. It would offer hope. And, crucially, it would take place in the context of a broader diplomatic initiative to the Islamic world, a mission in which we will need every card we can play. It would make a clear and emphatic statement to the Islamic states — at precisely the moment when we might be taking military action against Islamic regimes that harbor terrorists, a move that could inspire a new generation of terrorists with an implacable hatred of America — that it is a new day, that Israel is not the tail that wags the American dog.
No one can say that stepping into the Middle East quagmire will stop future terror attacks against the United States. The world is full of angry zealots with a laundry list of grievances. Bin Laden and his maniacal ilk might continue to plot mayhem against us no matter what we do. But it could help, and it is the right thing to do.
It is also the wise thing to do. Enraged politicians, pundits and citizens are calling for America to lash out indiscriminately, to bomb states that harbor terrorists even if innocent people are killed — rabid reactions epitomized by columnist Ann Coulter, who wrote, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” That way madness lies. As we move into uncharted territory of extraordinary difficulty, hunting down the elusive and bloodthirsty foes responsible for history’s worst act of terrorism, we must ensure our efforts do not ignite a conflagration of anti-American hatred throughout the Arab world. To do this we must convince that world that we are genuinely interested in brokering a fair and comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
There will be those who point to the televised images of Palestinians celebrating the attacks as proof that these people hate us too much to ever be partners in peace. Such a reaction is understandable, but it is wrong. No one can condone celebrating the murder of innocent people. But hopeless, desperate people are driven to do ugly things. In their hearts, the Palestinians, like the Israelis, like Americans, like all the people of the world, want the same things. Peace. A country. A decent life. The little girls in Nablus lighting candles in memory of those who died in New York City are the real face of the Palestinian people. Our goal must be to act in such a way that some day, if an earthquake rocks Tel Aviv, those little girls will light candles for its victims, too.
On Tuesday, America turned into Israel. The sudden, obscene horror. The nightmarish images. The anguish of families torn apart, of cherished lives suddenly snuffed out.
On Tuesday, America also turned into Palestine. The same horror. The same images. The same anguish.
Today, the Jordan river runs through the center of every city in America. Palestinians and Israelis have waded through that river of blood and tears for decades: On Tuesday, we received our terrible baptism. Like the human beings who live in Jerusalem and Ramallah, we know we are not safe, not any more. We must finally accept that what happens in Ramallah and Jerusalem on Monday will happen in New York and Washington, or San Francisco and Chicago, on Tuesday.
If America succeeds in unifying the world against terrorism, while helping bring peace to the world’s most dangerous and intractable conflict and draining the venom from old hatreds, the unthinkable tragedy that has befallen us might yield a lasting good.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)