"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)
(updated below – Update II - Update III)
If it is taboo to discuss how America’s actions in the Middle East cause Terrorism — and it generally is — that taboo is far stronger still when it comes to specifically discussing how our blind, endless enabling of Israeli actions fuels Terrorism directed at the U.S. An article in yesterday’s New York Times examined the life of Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian who blew himself up, along with 7 CIA agents, in Afghanistan this week. Why would Balawi — a highly educated doctor, who was specifically recruited by Jordanian intelligence officials to infiltrate Al Qaeda on behalf of Western governments — want to blow himself up and murder as many American intelligence agents as possible? The article provides this possible answer:
He described Mr. Balawi as a “very good brother” and a “brilliant doctor,” saying that the family knew nothing of Mr. Balawi’s writings under a pseudonym on jihadi Web sites. He said, however, that his brother had been “changed” by last year’s three-week-long Israeli offensive in Gaza, which killed about 1,300 Palestinians.
Students and administrators at the institute said Abdulmutallab was gregarious, had many Yemeni friends and was not overtly extremist. They noted, however, he was open about his sympathies toward the Palestinians and his anger over Israel’s actions in Gaza.
When the Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda announced earlier this year that they were unifying into “Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula,” they prominently featured rhetoric railing against the Israeli attack on Gaza, and “presented their campaign as part of the struggle to liberate Palestine, since Israel and the Crusaders are one.” So extreme is anger towards Israel over Gaza among Yemenis that even that country’s President — our supposed ally in the War on Terror — called for the opening of camps to train fighters against Israel in Gaza. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright claimed that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta signed his “martyr’s will” from Al Qaeda on the day in 1996 when Israel attacked Lebanon, and he did so due to “outrage” over that attack. There’s just no question that the U.S.’s loyal enabling of (and support for) Israel’s various wars with its Muslims neighbors contributes to terrorist attacks directed at Americans.
As always whenever the words “Israel” and/or “Terrorism” are mentioned, there is a severe danger of over-simplification and distortion from all sides, rendering several caveats in order: where U.S. support for Israel is a cause of anti-American Islamic extremism, it is generally not the only or even primary cause, but one of several; there is ample American interference and violence in the Muslim world that is quite independent of Israel, and that was true long before 9/11 and especially after. Al Qaeda leaders who actually care little about the Palestinian cause have a history of exploiting that issue to generate public support. The fact that Terrorists object to Policy X does not prove that Policy X should be discontinued. And most of all: to discuss causes of Terrorism is not to imply justification; one can seek to understand what we do to fuel Terrorism without suggesting that the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians is in any way legitimate or justified.
Despite all that, it’s impossible to grow accustomed to the extreme fantasy atmosphere and self-absorbed blindness that pervades American discussions over Terrorism, especially in the wake of a new scare. The Right, seeking as always to exploit Terrorism fears, falsely accuses Obama of not displaying “war” language and a “war” mentality, in response to which he and his aides step forward to affirm — yet again — that WE ARE AT WAR!, and to point to all of the times Obama decreed this to be so and all of the war actions he has ordered. So we’ve spent the last decade screaming to the world that WE ARE AT WAR!, that we’re a War Nation, that we’re led by a War President. That we are “at war” – not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but generally against Islamic extremists — is an absolute bipartisan orthodoxy that must be affirmed by all Serious people. And we are currently waging some form of actual war in no fewer than five predominantly Muslim countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia); are threatening Iran with ”crippling” sanctions and — from our more deranged quarters — war; and continuing our unbroken devotion to Israel’s causes.
Yet even in the face of all of that, it is bewilderment and confusion that reign when our media stars and political figures talk about attempts to attack Americans. Why would they possibly want to do this? They must be crazy, or drunk with religious fervor, or consumed by blinding, inhumane hatred. Much of that is probably true for individuals willing to blow themselves up in order to slaughter as many innocent civilians as possible. But it’s equally irrational to think that you’re going to spend a full decade bellowing WE ARE AT WAR! to the world, send bombs and troops and all forms of death to multiple Muslim countries (both directly and through Israel), and not have that directed back at us. That’s what happens when a country is “at war” — it doesn’t just get to blow up things and people in other countries, but its own things and people sometimes get blown up as well. That’s how “war” works.
It’s truly astounding to watch us — for a full decade — send fighter jets and drones and bombs and invading forces and teams of torturers and kidnappers to that part of the world, or, as we were doing long before 9/11, to overthrow their governments, prop up their dictators, occupy what they perceive as holy land with our foreign troops, and arm Israel to the teeth, and then act surprised and confused when some of them want to attack us. In general, the U.S. only attacks countries with no capabilities to attack us back in the ”homeland” — at least not with conventional forces. As a result, we have come to believe that any forms of violence we perpetrate on them over there is justifiable and natural, but the Laws of Humanity are instantly breached in the most egregious ways whenever they bring violence back to the U.S., aimed at Americans. It’s just impossible to listen to discussions grounded in this warped mentality without being astounded at how irrational it is. What do Americans think is going to happen if we continue to engage in this conduct, in this always-widening “war”?
The principal problem is that by pretending that we do nothing to fuel Islamic radicalism, we stay unaware — blissfully ignorant — of the staggering costs of our actions. I defy anyone to find a political figure in either major party’s leadership who has, in the context of discussing U.S. policy towards Israel, ever even mentioned the fact that undying, endless American support for Israel — making all of their conflicts our own — increases the risk of terrorist violence aimed at the U.S. But it so plainly does. The fact that Israel is now explicitly vowing that its “next wars” against its Muslim neighbors will be “much harsher” than even the grotesque atrocities in Gaza and Lebanon means these costs are almost certain to increase even further.
Again, these facts do not, standing alone, prove that we ought to change these policies. The mere fact that Islamic radicals object to what we do does not prove we should stop, as there may be net benefits to those actions or they may be morally justifiable. But at the very least, rational discussions require that these costs and benefits be weighed, and that can only happen if we acknowledge the costs. But when it comes to our own actions in the Muslim world, and especially our undying devotion to supporting everything Israel does, acknowledging the costs (to say nothing of the morality) is exactly what we steadfastly refuse to do.
UPDATE: Today’s Haaretz — in an article headlined: ”Report: Al-Qaida CIA bomber was furious over Gaza war” — also reports: ”The Jordanian national that attacked a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, killing 7 CIA agents, was furious over the Israel’s Gaza offensive, the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported on Thursday.” Phil Weiss asks about the connection between America’s Israel policy and Terrorist attacks aimed at the U.S.: ”I wonder how long the mainstream media will continue to treat this angle as a sidelight and not a main event”? Actually, treating it as a “sidelight” would be an upgrade from what they do now: ignore it completely and pretend it doesn’t exist. As usual, these discussions can appear more freely in Israeli newspapers like Haaretz than they can in American ones.
UPDATE II: The Yemeni government today warned that any direct U.S. military action in that country “could bolster the popularity of Islamic militants” and “would strengthen Al Qaeda.” For reasons that should be obvious, that’s how it works: not only in Yemen, but generally.
UPDATE III: Time reports that Balawi (the Jordanian doctor) had been a genuine intelligence asset for the U.S., working to help the U.S. find and bomb Al Qaeda sites, but was completely transformed at some point into an Al Qaeda sympathizer and ultimately a suicide bomber who killed 7 CIA agents. Part of the reason for the conversion? Because of “his outrage at the high number of civilian casualties inflicted in the resulting strikes”; he “had become enraged at the Americans for killing a high number of civilians in their hunt for al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.” Relatedly, Spencer Ackerman notes that Balawi’s Internet writings reflect a growing commitment to violence due to American and Israeli attacks on Muslims (“They have not left any excuse for any Muslim with a hint of honor to remain hesitant and accept the shame of staying away from the honor of participating in jihad”).
Just contemplate how many Balawis there are in the world: Muslims who begin with sympathy towards the U.S. and hostility towards Al Qaeda who are completely transformed into the opposite as a result of the constant civilian death we and Israel bring (regardless of intent) to that part of the world.
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)