"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)
Topics: Politics News
(updated below [Sun.])
In a New York Times Op-Ed yesterday, international human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith describes a meeting he had in Pakistan with residents from the Afghan-Pakistani border region that has been relentlessly bombed by American drones; if I had one political wish this week, it would be that everyone who supports (or acquiesces to) President Obama’s wildly accelerated drone attacks would read this:
The meeting had been organized so that Pashtun tribal elders who lived along the Pakistani-Afghan frontier could meet with Westerners for the first time to offer their perspectives on the shadowy drone war being waged by the Central Intelligence Agency in their region. Twenty men came to air their views; some brought their young sons along to experience this rare interaction with Americans. In all, 60 villagers made the journey. . . .
On the night before the meeting, we had a dinner, to break the ice. During the meal, I met a boy named Tariq Aziz. He was 16. As we ate, the stern, bearded faces all around me slowly melted into smiles. Tariq smiled much sooner; he was too young to boast much facial hair, and too young to have learned to hate.
The next day, the jirga lasted several hours. I had a translator, but the gist of each man’s speech was clear. American drones would circle their homes all day before unleashing Hellfire missiles, often in the dark hours between midnight and dawn. Death lurked everywhere around them. . . .
On Monday, [Tariq] was killed by a C.I.A. drone strike, along with his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan. The two of them had been dispatched, with Tariq driving, to pick up their aunt and bring her home to the village of Norak, when their short lives were ended by a Hellfire missile.
My mistake had been to see the drone war in Waziristan in terms of abstract legal theory — as a blatantly illegal invasion of Pakistan’s sovereignty, akin to President Richard M. Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia in 1970.
But now, the issue has suddenly become very real and personal. Tariq was a good kid, and courageous. My warm hand recently touched his in friendship; yet, within three days, his would be cold in death, the rigor mortis inflicted by my government.
And Tariq’s extended family, so recently hoping to be our allies for peace, has now been ripped apart by an American missile — most likely making any effort we make at reconciliation futile.
This tragedy repeats itself over and over. After I linked to this Op-Ed yesterday on Twitter — by writing that “every American who cheers for drone strikes should confront the victims of their aggression” — I was predictably deluged with responses justifying Obama’s drone attacks on the ground that they are necessary to kill The Terrorists. Reading the responses, I could clearly discern the mentality driving them: I have never heard of 99% of the people my government kills with drones, nor have I ever seen any evidence about them, but I am sure they are Terrorists. That is the drone mentality in both senses of the word; it’s that combination of pure ignorance and blind faith in government authorities that you will inevitably hear from anyone defending President Obama’s militarism. As Jonathan Schwarz observed after the U.S. unveiled the dastardly Iranian plot to hire a failed used car salesman to kill America’s close friend, the Saudi Ambassador: “I’d bet the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. has closer ‘ties’ to Al Qaeda than 90% of the people we’ve killed with drones.”
As it turns out, it isn’t only the President’s drone-cheering supporters who have no idea who is being killed by the program they support; neither does the CIA itself. A Wall Street Journal article yesterday described internal dissension in the administration to Obama’s broad standards for when drone strikes are permitted, and noted that the “bulk” of the drone attacks — the bulk of them – “target groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren’t always known.” As Spencer Ackerman put it: “The CIA is now killing people without knowing who they are, on suspicion of association with terrorist groups”; moreover, the administration refuses to describe what it even means by being “associated” with a Terrorist group (indeed, it steadfastly refuses to tell citizens anything about the legal principles governing its covert drone wars).
Of course, nobody inside the U.S. Government is objecting on the ground that it is wrong to blow people up without having any knowledge of who they are and without any evidence they have done anything wrong. Rather, the internal dissent is grounded in the concern that these drone attacks undermine U.S. objectives by increasing anti-American sentiment in the region (there’s that primitive, inscrutable Muslim culture rearing its head again: they strangely seem to get very angry when foreign governments send sky robots over their countries and blow up their neighbors, teenagers and children). But whatever else is true, huge numbers of Americans — Democrats and Republicans alike — defend Obama’s massive escalation of drone attacks on the ground that he’s killing Terrorists even though they — and, according to the Wall Street Journal, Obama himself — usually don’t even know whose lives they’re snuffing out. Remember, though: we have to kill The Muslim Terrorists because they have no regard for human life.
This is why it’s so imperative to do everything possible to shine a light on the victims of President Obama’s aggression in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere: ignoring the victims, rendering them invisible, is a crucial prerequisite to sustaining propaganda and maintaining support for this militarism (that’s the same reason John Brennan lied — yet again — by assuring Americans that there are no innocent victims of drone attacks). Many people want to hear nothing about these victims — like Tariq — because they don’t want to accept that the leader for whom they cheer and the drone attacks they support are regularly ending the lives of large numbers of innocent people, including children. They believe the fairy tale that the U.S. is only killing Terrorists and “militants” because they want to believe it (at this point, the word “militant” has no real definition other than: he or she who dies when a missile shot by a U.S. drone detonates). It’s a self-serving, self-protective form of self-delusion, and the more we hear about the dead teeangers left in the wake of this violence, the more difficult it is to maintain that delusion. That’s precisely why we hear so little about it.
Over the last week, I had the genuine privilege of spending substantial amounts of time with participants in the truly inspiring Occupy movement around the country, including visiting Occupy Oakland on Thursday. This same dynamic is at play there. Many sneer at the protest encampments because they include the homeless, the unstable, the “dirty,” the jobless, and those who are otherwise downtrodden, dispossessed and unable to live decent lives. Much of that sneering is due to the desire that these people remain hidden from sight, invisible, so that we can avoid facing the reality of what our society has produced on a large scale (having Dirty, Disobedient People be part of a movement vaguely associated with liberalism also harms the ability of progressive media stars to maintain their access to the Halls of Seriousness). But they are and should be part of that movement precisely because the disappearance of the middle class and booming wealth and income inequality produces exactly this type of human suffering. There are those who love to parade around as supporters of the marginalized and poor who prefer that they remain silent and invisible — distant abstractions — because being viscerally confronted with their human realness is unpleasant and uncomfortable. That’s exactly why victims of President Obama’s relentless drone attacks remain invisible and many prefer to keep it that way — it’s best not to confront the reality of the misery that one’s policies wreak — and it’s exactly why everything should be done to prevent that disappearing from happening.
* * * * *
Pratap Chatterjee of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism attended the meeting in Islamabad which Smith describes in that Op-Ed and wrote in detail about it. Chatterjee posted video of Tariq at that meeting — who is seen on the video, posted below, in the dark shirt and yellow hat just days before his death-by-American-drone — and wrote the following:
Among the group was Tariq Aziz, a quiet 16-year-old, who had come after he received a phone call from a lawyer in Islamabad offering him an opportunity to learn basic photography to help document these strikes. . . .
Tariq was proud to be part of this meeting. About 18 months earlier, in April 2010, his cousin Aswar Ullah was killed by a missile fired from a drone as he rode a motorcycle near Norak. . . .
What none of us could have imagined was that 72 hours later, this football-loving teenager would himself be killed by a CIA drone, along with his 12-year-old cousin Waheed Khan. . . .
Tariq and Waheed’s death brought the total number of children killed in drone strikes to 175, according to the Bureau’s own findings. As part of an ongoing investigation, the Bureau has documented 306 strikes from remotely piloted drones that have killed between 2,359 and 2,959 people. Over 85% of them have been launched by the administration of President Barack Obama.Tariq came from a poor community on the border with Afghanistan. He was the youngest of seven children. His father, Mumtaz Khan, was away working in the United Arab Emirates as a driver to support his family. Waheed’s family was equally poor – the 12-year-old worked in a local shop for a salary of just Rs 2000 a month (roughly £15 or $23)
As I’ve noted before, the statistical methodology used by the Bureau to count innocent victims is the most conservative possible, meaning the numbers are almost certainly much higher. The only thing unusual about Tariq is that his death is receiving substantial attention because of the coincidence that he met with Westerners 72 hours before his life was ended. Most Tariqs simply die without anyone in the country responsible being bothered with hearing about it.
UPDATE [Sun.]: VastLeft comments on these matters by cartoon.
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)