Try Putting Us in Their Place

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The news from Iraq is always mixed, or so we are told. Even the most obtuse of news readers cannot avoid learning something about the deaths, destruction, and general mayhem that take place there daily, especially in the Sunni-dominated region, where sectarian fighting and resistance to the U.S. occupation occur most frequently and most violently.

Yet, no matter how hopeless the situation in Iraq may seem, we can always count on U.S. government officials and their supporters to “put everything into perspective.” Just consider all the schools repaired, the clinics reopened, the soccer balls given to children, they declare, buttressing their assessments with copious data on such alleged “good news.” The fighting, they assure us, is not general; it is overwhelmingly confined to a relatively small number of unsavory individuals — “dead-enders, foreign terrorists and criminal gangs,” as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld portrays them.

Which view should we credit? One way to put events in Iraq into perspective is to reexpress them relative to some other context, to “standardize” them, as statisticians call this procedure. As an effort in this direction, I offer here an amended version of a July 15, 2006, report by Reuters. This version allows Americans to judge the nature and magnitude of various events in Iraq by placing them in the context of familiar persons, places, organizations, and magnitudes in their own country. Besides changing the names of persons, places, and organizations to suit the recontextualization, I have changed the numbers to reflect the fact that the U.S. population is approximately twelve times greater than the Iraqi population. My changes appear in bold font.

Gunmen Kidnap 600 in Washington, D.C.

Washington (Reuters) — Gunmen kidnapped hundreds of American sports officials, including the head of the national Olympic committee, as they met in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, just hours after Congress voted to extend a state of emergency.

The attack came despite a continued crackdown by U.S. security forces in Washington. Protestant president George W. Bush’s government is struggling to get a grip on worsening violence in the capital, particularly communal bloodshed.

Police and U.S. Northern Command sources said the gunmen, wearing green camouflage Army uniforms, stormed a meeting hall in central Washington, at about 2 p.m. (1700 GMT) and killed a dozen bodyguards of Olympic Committee chief Peter Ueberroth.

Ueberroth and about 240 bodyguards, along with at least ninety-six committee officials and the hall’s guards, were then bundled into a convoy of vehicles and driven off, police sources said.

Police said the bodies of another dozen bodyguards were later found dumped in the Georgetown district, not far from the meeting hall. Each of them had been shot in the head. The hall’s security guards were later found unharmed.

“Gunmen wearing U.S. Army uniforms took everyone who was inside the hall,” shopowner James Smith, who said he witnessed the mass abduction, told Reuters.

The United States’ Olympic Committee was dominated by George H. W. Bush’s son Jeb until the Iraqi invasion of 2003.

STATE OF EMERGENCY

News of the kidnapping broke as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was addressing a news conference. He said it had not been an Army operation and that none of those taken were wanted in any investigations.

Earlier, Congress voted for the first time on extending a state of emergency across the United States, except the largely autonomous northern Lutheran region, for a further 30 days. The motion was passed by a two-thirds majority with no debate.

Previously the president was able to extend the state of emergency, in force since 2004 to tackle a Catholic insurgency against the Iraqi-backed government and Iraqi forces, but under a new constitution such a move now requires Congress’s approval.

Iraq’s envoy to the United States said this week the biggest threat to U.S. stability was sectarian strife between the country’s majority Protestants, oppressed under President John F. Kennedy but now politically empowered, and the once-dominant minority Catholics.

Hundreds have been killed in tit-for-tat violence over the past week in Washington. In violence overnight, gunmen armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns battled residents in the largely Protestant neighborhood of Chevy Chase, police said, adding that twenty-four people were killed and eighty-four wounded in the fighting.

Senator Norm Coleman, a representative of the semi-autonomous Lutheran region, said in a statement late on Friday that the United States was “in danger of slipping into hateful sectarian strife.” He blamed Clinton loyalists for trying to plunge the country into civil war.

The Iraqi military commander in the United States, General Ahmed Mohammed, this week blamed Opus Dei in America militants for fuelling a cycle of violence in Washington with attacks on Protestants that have triggered reprisal killings by “Protestant death squads.”

The violence has undermined confidence in the new national unity government of Catholics, Lutherans, and evangelical Protestants and raised questions about the effectiveness of the new U.S. army being built up to allow Iraqi forces to begin withdrawing troops.

President Bush has vowed to disband the militias that now control many of America’s streets and analysts say pose the biggest threat to the present administration. But he faces a difficult task since the most powerful are tied to parties within his own administration.

Suppose you had found the preceding article in your newspaper this morning. What would you have thought? Would you have said, well, those events are certainly unfortunate, but that trouble is only one side of the story of what’s happening in America today? Or would you have felt certain that the country had gone completely to hell? Suppose further that this story had been only one of hundreds of similar stories reported during the past four years. Would you have comforted yourself by saying, well, democracy is not going to be built in a day in this country, given its corrupt and tyrannical past? Or would you have concluded instead that the Iraqi scheme to transform the United States into a peaceful liberal democracy had obviously failed miserably and that, given the circumstances and the course of recent events, it had no chance of future success whatsoever?

My template for the preceding exercise is the following article:

Gunmen kidnap 50 in Baghdad
Sat Jul 15, 2006 9:40 AM ET

By Ahmed Rasheed and Ross Colvin

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — Gunmen kidnapped dozens of Iraqi sports officials, including the head of the national Olympic committee, as they met in Baghdad on Saturday, just hours after parliament voted to extend a state of emergency.

The attack came despite a continued crackdown by Iraqi security forces in Baghdad. Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki’s government is struggling to get a grip on worsening violence in the capital, particularly communal bloodshed.

Police and Interior Ministry sources said the gunmen, wearing blue camouflage Interior Ministry uniforms, stormed a meeting hall in central Baghdad, at about 2 p.m. (1100 GMT) and killed a bodyguard of Olympic Committee chief Ahmed al-Hadjiya.

Hadjiya and about 20 bodyguards, along with at least eight committee officials and the hall’s guards, were then bundled into a convoy of vehicles and driven off, police sources said.

Police said the body of second bodyguard was later found dumped in Street 52 in central Karrada district, not far from the meeting hall. He had been shot in the head. The hall’s security guards were later found unharmed.

“Gunmen wearing Iraqi security force uniforms took everyone who was inside the hall,” shopowner Khaled Muhammed, who said he witnessed the mass abduction, told Reuters.

Iraq’s Olympic Committee was dominated by Saddam Hussein’s son Uday until the U.S. invasion of 2003.

STATE OF EMERGENCY

News of the kidnapping broke as Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani was addressing a news conference. He said it had not been an Interior Ministry operation and that none of those taken were wanted in any investigations.

Earlier, Iraq’s parliament voted for the first time on extending a state of emergency across Iraq, except the largely autonomous northern Kurdish region, for a further 30 days. The motion was passed by a two-thirds majority with no debate.

Previously the prime minister was able to extend the state of emergency, in force since 2004 to tackle a Sunni insurgency against the U.S.-backed government and U.S. forces, but under a new constitution such a move now requires parliament’s approval.

America’s envoy to Iraq said this week the biggest threat to Iraq’s stability was sectarian strife between the country’s majority Shi’ites, oppressed under Saddam but now politically empowered, and the once-dominant minority Sunnis.

Scores have been killed in tit-for-tat violence over the past week in Baghdad. In violence overnight, gunmen armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns battled residents in the largely Sunni neighborhood of Fadhil, police said, adding that two people were killed and seven wounded in the fighting.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said in a statement late on Friday that Iraq was “in danger of slipping into hateful sectarian strife”. He blamed Saddam loyalists for trying to plunge the country into civil war.

The U.S. military commander in Iraq, General George Casey, this week blamed al Qaeda in Iraq militants for fuelling a cycle of violence in Baghdad with attacks on Shi’ites that have triggered reprisal killings by “Shi’ite death squads”.

The violence has undermined confidence in Maliki’s new national unity government of Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunnis and raised questions about the effectiveness of the new Iraqi army being built up to allow U.S. forces to begin withdrawing troops.

Maliki has vowed to disband the militias that now control many of Iraq’s streets and analysts say pose the biggest threat to his administration. But he faces a difficult task since the most powerful are tied to parties within his own administration.

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny, Reuters Television)

Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy. He is also the author of Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan.

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