"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)
Last week, the British newspaper the Daily Mirror reported that George W. Bush had told U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair in April 2004 that he was planning to bomb the Al-Jazeera offices in Qatar. The report, based on a leaked top-secret government memo, claimed that Blair dissuaded Bush from bombing the Arab cable news channel’s offices. An anonymous source told the Mirror, “There’s no doubt what Bush wanted, and no doubt Blair didn’t want him to do it.” The Mirror quoted a government spokesperson, also anonymous, as suggesting that Bush’s threat had been “humorous, not serious.” But the newspaper quoted another source who said, “Bush was deadly serious, as was Blair. That much is absolutely clear from the language used by both men.”
White House press secretary Scott McClellan brushed off the report, telling the Associated Press in an e-mail, “We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response.” In a response to a question asked in Parliament, Tony Blair denied that Bush had told him he planned to take action against Al-Jazeera. The two men involved in the leak have been charged with violating Britain’s Official Secrets Act.
The report kicked off a furor in Europe and the Middle East. It was, predictably, virtually ignored by the American press. It would be premature to claim that the Mirror’s report, based on anonymous sources and a document that has not been made public, proves that Bush intended to bomb Al-Jazeera. But the frightening truth is that it is only too possible that the Mirror’s report is accurate. Bush and his inner circle, in particular Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, had long demonized the channel as “vicious,” “inexcusably biased” and abetting terrorists. Considering the administration’s no-holds-barred approach to the “war on terror,” the closed circle of ideologues that surround Bush, and his own messianic certainty about his divine mission to rid the world of “evil,” the idea that he seriously considered bombing what he perceived as a nest of terrorist sympathizers simply cannot be ruled out. Add in the fact that the U.S. military had previously bombed Al-Jazeera’s Kabul, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq, offices (the U.S. pleaded ignorance in the Kabul case, and claimed the Baghdad bombing was a mistake), and the case becomes stronger still.
Skeptics have argued that it is inconceivable that even Bush would consider bombing an office containing 400 journalists, located in the friendly Gulf nation of Qatar. But again, it is more than conceivable that Bush decided that it was essential to neutralize an enemy outpost, and left the tactical question of execution to spooks and generals. Certainly there is strong evidence that Bush and his advisors, in particular Rumsfeld, were thinking along these lines.
Ironically, Rumsfeld himself had telegraphed the strategy during an interview in 2001 on … Al-Jazeera! On Oct. 16, 2001, Rumsfeld talked to the channel’s Washington anchor Hafez Mirazi (who once worked for the Voice of America but left in disgust at the level of censorship he faced there). Although most such interviews are archived at the Department of Defense, this one appears to be absent. Mirazi showed it again on Monday, and it contained a segment in which Rumsfeld defended the targeting of radio stations that supported the Taliban. He made it clear right then that he believed in total war, and made no distinction between civilian and military targets. The radio stations, he said, were part of the Taliban war effort.
In fact, Al-Jazeera bears no resemblance to the pro-Taliban radio stations that Rumsfeld defended attacking.
Despite the extensive censorship regimes in the Middle East, Arab intellectuals joke, it is possible to get news about everything from only two sources. The Al-Jazeera television channel will report frankly on every Arab government save that of Qatar, its host and benefactor. On the other hand, Saudi pan-Arab newspapers published in London will report fully on all Arab governments save Saudi Arabia’s own. Put them together, and you have complete coverage.
Al-Jazeera was founded in the 1990s by disgruntled Arab journalists, many of whom had worked for the BBC Arabic service, though a few came from the Voice of America. The station was a breath of fresh air in the stultified world of Arab news broadcasting, where news producers’ idea of an exciting segment is a stationary camera on two Arab leaders sitting ceremonially on a Louis XIV sofa while martial music plays for several minutes. In contrast, Al-Jazeera anchors host live debates that often turn heated, and do not hesitate to ask sharp questions.
Despite the false stereotypes that circulate in the United States among pundits and politicians who have never watched the station, most of Al-Jazeera’s programming is not Muslim fundamentalist in orientation. The rhetoric is that of Arab nationalism, and the reporters are only interested in fundamentalism to the extent that it is anti-imperialist in tone. This slant gives many of the programs the musty, antiquated feel of an old Gamal Abdul Nasser speech from the 1960s. In the Arab world, clothes speak to politics. The male anchors and reporters usually sport business suits, and the mostly unveiled women might as well be on the runway of a European fashion show. The station does carry a program with the Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim brother who fled Abdul Nasser’s regime. But even al-Qaradawi gave a fatwa (ruling) allowing Muslims to fight in the U.S. military against al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
Al-Jazeera broadcasts videotapes by Muslim radicals such as Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, angering Bush administration officials. But broadcasting their tapes does not constitute an endorsement, and it seems clear what the al-Qaida leaders would do to the modern, non-theocratic journalists of Al-Jazeera if they took over Qatar. The sensibilities about such matters, in any case, differ from country to country. There was a time when an Irish Republican Army figure such as Gerry Adams could not be shown speaking on British television, on the grounds that he was a terrorist. But the U.S. was notoriously unhelpful in boycotting the IRA, whose cause was popular among many Irish-Americans. Rumsfeld has complained bitterly about other news servicing, calling the German press, for example, “worse than al-Qaida.”
Political scientist Marc Lynch, in his just-published “Voices of the New Arab Public,” notes that despite their tilt toward Arab nationalism, the station’s anchors often ask sharp questions of state spokesmen. For example, one quizzed Iraq Foreign Minister Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf (later notorious as “Baghdad Bob”) in 1998, inquiring why, if Iraq had no forbidden weapons, it did not simply allow the inspectors into the country.
Among the chief criticisms launched by Bush administration figures such as Rumsfeld against Al-Jazeera was that it showed graphic images of the dead and wounded from both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The Bush administration had learned the lesson of Vietnam, that images of actual warfare generally appall the American public, which seems less bothered by words describing the horrors than it does by pictures. Reporters were forbidden to photograph the caskets of dead American soldiers coming into Dover Air Force base. U.S. newspaper editors exercised a rigorous self-censorship, routinely declining the more graphic images of war on offer from the wire services, apparently on the belief that they would not be acceptable to an American public.
Al-Jazeera was the prime source of pictures of warfare, including dead and wounded, for the Afghanistan war. On Nov. 11, 2001, the New York Times quoted Auberi Edler, a foreign news editor at France 2, as complaining about the Pentagon policy of embargoing images from the war: “Our greatest pressure is that we have no images … The only interesting images we get are from Al-Jazeera. It’s bad for everybody.”
The U.S. tactic of using smart bombs to target foreign fighters holing up in urban areas proved a challenge to Western news photographers, both in Afghanistan and Iraq. If they were not embedded with U.S. troops in areas where such bombing was taking place, they were in extreme danger. If they were with the troops, they could say little more than that they had heard bombing in the distance. The horror sometimes inflicted on civilians, despite the best efforts of military targeters, remained off camera for American audiences. Al-Jazeera, however, developed stringers who could provide that footage.
Rumsfeld became increasingly exasperated with the channel as the Iraq adventure went bad. In early 2004, according to Fox News, he began equating its news coverage of Iraq with murder: “‘We are being hurt by Al-Jazeera in the Arab world,’ he said. ‘There is no question about it. The quality of the journalism is outrageous — inexcusably biased — and there is nothing you can do about it except try to counteract it.’ He said it was turning Arabs against the United States. ‘You could say it causes the loss of life,’ he added. ‘It’s causing Iraqi people to be killed’ by inflaming anti-American passions and encouraging attacks against Iraqis who assist the Americans, he added.”
The notion that reporting on the guerrilla war in Iraq abets terrorism is typical of the logic of any extreme right-wing political movement. All censorship by all military regimes in the Middle East has been imposed on the grounds that journalists’ speech is dangerous to society and could cause public turmoil (fitna). Rumsfeld’s reasoning in this regard would be instantly recognizable to any Arab journalist from their experience with their own governments.
Of course, Rumsfeld did not consider how many lives — tens of thousands — have been lost because of his own inaccurate statements to the American public about Iraq, which he maintained had dangerous weapons of mass destructions and even more dangerous weapons programs. He and Vice President Dick Cheney also alleged an operational connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden that did not exist, implying repeatedly that Saddam was involved in Sept. 11. If speech really is murder, Rumsfeld is the Ted Bundy of governmental officials.
Rumsfeld, then, considered Al-Jazeera an accessory to terror, and there is no reason to suppose that Bush did not share this view. Seen in this light, Bush’s plan to bomb its central offices makes perfect sense. Bush has often boasted about his harshness toward murderers, and during his debate with Al Gore in 2000, he positively scared some in his audience by the macho swagger with which he described executing criminals while he was governor of Texas.
The secretary’s rage grew in intensity thereafter. At the height of the first U.S. attack on Fallujah, which was ordered by Bush in a fit of pique over the killing and desecration of four private security guards (three of them Americans, one South African), Rumsfeld exploded at a Pentagon briefing on April 15:
If I could follow up, Monday General Abizaid chastised Al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyah for their coverage of Fallujah and saying that hundreds of civilians were being killed. Is there an estimate on how many civilians have been killed in that fighting? And can you definitively say that hundreds of women and children and innocent civilians have not been killed?
SEC. RUMSFELD: I can definitively say that what al-Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable.
Do you have a civilian casualty count?
SEC. RUMSFELD: Of course not, we’re not in the city. But you know what our forces do; they don’t go around killing hundreds of civilians. That’s just outrageous nonsense! It’s disgraceful what that station is doing.
In fact, local medical authorities put the number of dead at Fallujah, most of them women, children and noncombatants, at around 600.
As the London Times pointed out on Sunday, Bush’s conference with Blair, at which he announced his plan to bomb the channel’s Doha offices, occurred the very next day.
The outrage of the Bush administration had to do in part with what it saw as inaccuracies in Al-Jazeera reporting (as when it incorrectly alleged that spring that a U.S. helicopter had been downed, based on local eyewitnesses or Iraqi guerrilla sources). In the fog of war, however, most news outlets commit such errors. The real source of Rumsfeld’s volcanic ire, and Bush’s alleged turn as would-be mafia don and war criminal, was the graphic images of the warfare in Iraq that Al-Jazeera was willing to display at a time when no major U.S. news source would do so. Enraged, Rumsfeld began accusing the station of sins it never committed. In summer of 2005, in Singapore, the secretary of defense said, “If anyone lived in the Middle East and watched a network like the Al-Jazeera day after day after day, even if he was an American, he would start waking up and asking what’s wrong. But America is not wrong. It’s the people who are going on television chopping off people’s heads, that is wrong. And television networks that carry it and promote it and jump on the spark every time there is a terrorist act are promoting the acts.”
In fact, according to its media spokesman Jihad Ballout, Al-Jazeera “has never, ever shown a beheading of any hostage.” Nor had its anchors come on the screen and urged beheadings in the manic way that Rumsfeld suggested. Al-Jazeera reporters may not like U.S. imperialism very much, but they are not fundamentalist murderers.
Despite the smokescreens that politicians and diplomats are attempting to throw up by suggesting that Bush was just joking, there is every reason to suspect that he was deadly serious and that Blair barely managed to argue him out of this parlous course of action. First, the Kabul and Baghdad offices of Al-Jazeera had already been bombed by the U.S. military. In each case the action was called a mistake. One such bombing might indeed have been an error, but two arouses suspicion. And now we know there was talk of a third.
The reaction in the Arab world to the Daily Mirror report has been a firestorm of outrage. Some Qataris are calling for the government to end U.S. basing rights in that country. Others are lamenting the hypocrisy of a superpower that represents itself as the leading edge of liberty in the Middle East but has so little respect for press freedom that its leader would cavalierly speak of wiping out hundreds of civilian journalists. If the British documents surface and the story’s seriousness is borne out, whatever shreds of credibility Bush still has in the Middle East will be completely gone. After all, the current phase of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and the two wars Americans have fought in the region, came in response to the terrorist bombing of innocent civilians in downtown office buildings.
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)