"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)
In terms of understanding how the U.S. is perceived in the Muslim world — and why some people might become sufficiently enraged to give up their own lives to attack us — consider the following:
(1) On January 27, Raymond Davis, a former U.S. Special Forces soldier, shot and killed two Pakistani citizens in that nation’s second-largest city, Lahore, using a semi-automatic Glock pistol. Davis claims he acted in self-defense when they attacked his car to rob him — both of the dead were armed and had lengthy records of petty crimes — but each was shot five times, and one was killed after Davis was safely back in his car and the victim was fleeing. After shooting the two dead, Davis calmly photographed their bodies and then called other Americans stationed in Pakistan (likely CIA officers) for assistance; one of the Americans’ Land Rovers dispatched to help Davis struck and killed a Pakistani motorcyclist while speeding to the scene. The Pakistani wife of one of Davis’ victims then committed suicide by swallowing rat poison, saying on her deathbed that she had serious doubts that Davis would be held accountable.
For reasons easy to understand — four dead Pakistanis at the hands of Americans, two of whom (at least) were completely innocent — this episode has become a major scandal in that nation. From the start, the U.S. Government has demanded Davis’ release on the grounds of “diplomatic immunity.” But the very murky status of Davis and his work in Pakistan has clouded that claim. The State Department first said he worked for the consulate, not the embassy, which would make him subject to weaker immunity rights than diplomats enjoy (State now says that its original claim was a “mistake” and that Davis worked for the embassy). President Obama then publicly demanded the release of what he absurdly called ”our diplomat in Pakistan”; when he was arrested, Davis ”was carrying a 9mm gun and 75 bullets, bolt cutters, a GPS unit, an infrared light, telescope, a digital camera, an air ticket, two mobile phones and a blank cheque.” Late last week, a Pakistani court ordered a three-week investigation to determine if Davis merits diplomatic immunity, during which time he will remain in custody. And now it turns out, according The Guardian last night, that ”our diplomat” was actually working for the CIA:
The American who shot dead two men in Lahore, triggering a diplomatic crisis between Pakistan and the US, is a CIA agent who was on assignment at the time. . . . Based on interviews in the US and Pakistan, the Guardian can confirm that the 36-year-old former special forces soldier is employed by the CIA. “It’s beyond a shadow of a doubt,” said a senior Pakistani intelligence official. . . . He served in the US special forces for 10 years before leaving in 2003 to become a security contractor. A senior Pakistani official said he believed Davis had worked with Xe, the firm formerly known as Blackwater.
A few caveats are in order here. Though The Guardian uses unusually strong language for its claim (“the Guardian can confirm”), the reporting appears based mostly if not entirely on Pakistani sources and is entirely anonymous (though Davis’ CIA connection has been speculated from the start and never denied by the U.S. Government). Most countries, including the U.S., have on occasion been forced to release perpetrators of heinous crimes because they had “diplomatic” status (or were family members of diplomats): including murder, rape and pedophilia, and it often (and understandably) engenders public rage. The U.S. is hardly alone in spying under diplomatic cover. And the general custom is that once a person enters a country with a diplomatic passport — as Davis did here — they are entitled to immunity regardless of their specific work. In sum, both the factual and legal issues here are both unclear and complex (The Guardian today has an excellent article [link fixed] gathering all the known facts, while The Washington Post‘s “fact-checking” feature reviews the international legal issues and “withholds judgment” on who is right).
But several points are quite clear. There’s the gross hypocrisy of the U.S. State Department invoking lofty “rule-of-law” and diplomacy principles under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations — the very same State Department that just got caught systematically violating that convention when WikiLeaks cables revealed that U.S. “diplomats” were ordered to spy on U.N. officials and officials in other countries. Then there’s the delusional notion — heard mostly from progressives with romanticized images of the State Department — that WikiLeaks’ release of diplomatic cables was terrible because it’s wrong to undermine “diplomacy” with leaks, since the State Department (unlike the Big, Bad Pentagon) is devoted to Good, Humane causes of facilitating peace. As this episode illustrates, there’s no separation among the various arms of the U.S. Government; they all are devoted to the same end and simply use different means to accomplish it (when the U.S. Government is devoted to war, “diplomatic” functions are used to bolster the war, as Colin Powell can tell you).
But what this highlights most of all is the extraordinary cost of occupying, interfering with and waging endless war in multiple countries around the world. Back in November, 2009, Jeremy Scahill reported on the U.S.’s “Secret War in Pakistan” using Special Forces and Blackwater operatives, and was promptly attacked as a liar by the U.S. Government — until WikiLeaks cables confirmed the accuracy of what he said. We relentlessly hear what a serious threat is posed to us by Terrorism, and gravely lament that Pakistan is such a hotbed for that activity and those who support it. Yet — as the people in that country hear every day — we’re occupying, bombing, droning, and otherwise trying to control what happens there. As The Guardian put it with great understatement:
Many Pakistanis are outraged at the idea of an armed American rampaging through their second-largest city. Analysts have warned of Egyptian-style protests if Davis is released.
Those crazy, primitive Pakistanis and their inscrutable Muslim customs. Scandals over diplomatic immunity are usually one-time, aberrational occurrences: a son of a diplomat gets away with a DUI or a low-level embassy official receives immunity for sex crimes. But what happened in Lahore is part of an ongoing, continuous assault by American forces in that region. They (but not we) hear routinely about the killing of their innocent civilians by Americans in their country. Why don’t we hear much about such things? The Guardian article provides some insight:
A number of US media outlets learned about Davis’s CIA role but have kept it under wraps at the request of the Obama administration.
That’s our intrepid, independent Watchdog press. The cost of this conduct is so predictable — intense anti-American sentiment and the threats of Terrorism it produces — that a rational person would have to inquire whether that outcome is not a bug but a feature of our policy in that region.
(2) In exciting news, the Obama administration used America’s U.N. veto for its first time. It’s not exactly difficult to guess what the topic was: ”blocking a Palestinian-backed draft resolution that denounced Israel’s settlement policy as an illegal obstacle to peace efforts in the Middle East.” In vetoing the resolution, the U.S. completely isolated itself: all 14 other members of the Security Council voted for the resolution, including U.S. allies Britain and France. The linked Washington Post article was atypically candid about what motivated the Obama administration’s veto:
Although U.S. officials have consistently criticized the settlement policy, a vote in favor of the resolution would have angered Israel and its U.S. supporters, including Republican lawmakers, who had urged the Obama administration to stand with Israel at all costs.
“Stand with Israel at all costs” is exactly what “its U.S. supporters” demand, and as usual, it’s exactly what the U.S. Government just did. And the “cost” to the U.S. is extremely high. It’s certainly true that little would have changed had this passed: the Israelis aren’t exactly shy about violating U.N. resolutions. But by standing alone against the rest of the world in stopping it, the U.S. has — once again — incurred grave damage for the sake of Israel. As The Post put it, the veto “isolated the United States on a crucial Middle East matter at a time of political upheaval in the region.” There is zero strategic benefit to the U.S. in blocking this resolution (unless one assumes that the U.S. desires settlement growth to continue). But at one of the most critical times in that region in more than a century, the U.S. openly subverts the world consensus to protect the Israelis from censure over blatantly illegal acts — all to avoid angering “its supporters” in the U.S.
Remember, though: talking about the power of the Israel Lobby and the way it causes the U.S. to sacrifice its own interests for this foreign country is strictly prohibited and a sure sign of deep malice. And the only possible reason why Muslims in that region might harbor hostility toward the U.S. is because of primitive, crazed religious fanaticism and a contempt for Our Freedoms.
(3) One of the most notable aspects of the remarkable — and inspiring — revolutionary events in the Middle East is how most (though not all) of the villains at the heart of the depicted drama — the Evil, Dictatorial Regimes — are and have long been such close and cherished allies of the United States. That fact isn’t much acknowledged in American media narratives, but it’s certainly been long and well-known in that part of the world. And the true faces of our allies are now being exposed in a way that not even we can look away from. Imagine if Americans lived under a brutal, repressive, dictatorial regime for decades, and one foreign nation devoted huge amounts of its resources to empowering and propping up that regime for years. Might that generate some intense hostility toward that foreign power?
(4) Yesterday, tribal elders in Afghanistan claimed that NATO air raids killed 64 civilians, though NATO officials deny that. In the past, such conflicts have usually been resolved in favor of the local Afghans claiming civilian deaths. I don’t know what happened in this particular incident, but news reports of civilian deaths caused by the U.S. in that country are rather constant over there, though rare over here. One might consider the cumulative effect of that.
* * * * *
When New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller recently published a long article describing his feelings about Julian Assange and the disclosures by WikiLeaks, he explained that while “it is [the paper's] aim to be impartial in [its] presentation of the news,” their “attitude toward these issues is far from indifferent.” Noting that most NYT executives and reporters live in New York, he assured the public that “the journalists at The Times have a large and personal stake in the country’s security” and are thus ”invested in the struggle against murderous extremism.” This is how Keller understands the War on Terror in which, he said, the NYT sides with the U.S.:
The virulent hatred espoused by terrorists, judging by their literature, is directed not just against our people and our buildings but also at our values and at our faith in the self-government of an informed electorate. If the freedom of the press makes some Americans uneasy, it is anathema to the ideologists of terror.
In other words, explained the newspaper of record’s Executive Editor, They Hate Us For Our Freedoms. These incidents from the past week make clear just how true that is.
UPDATE: Due to a technical glitch, an article published by Salon over the weekend regarding Anonymous and the Westboro Baptist Church was inadvertently posted here. I did not participate in the preparation or publication of that article; the mistake has now been corrected and the article removed from this space.
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)