Condi, Clarke and the Millennium Plot
Thursday, April 08, 2004
Something Condoleezza Rice mentioned in her appearance this morning before the 9/11 commission caught my attention:
- It's also the case that I think if you actually look back at the millennium period, it's questionable to me whether the argument that has been made that somehow shaking the trees is what broke up the millennium period is actually accurate -- and I was not there, clearly.
But I will tell you this. I will say this. That the millennium, of course, was a period of high threat by its very nature. We all knew that the millennium was a period of high threat.
And after September 11th, Dick Clarke sent us the after-action report that had been done after the millennium plot and their assessment was that Ressam had been caught by chance -- Ressam being the person who was entering the United States over the Canadian border with bomb-making materials in store.
I think it actually wasn't by chance, which was Washington's view of it. It was because a very alert customs agent named Diana Dean and her colleagues sniffed something about Ressam. They saw that something was wrong. They tried to apprehend him. He tried to run. They then apprehended him, found that there was bomb-making material and a map of Los Angeles.
Now, at that point, you have pretty clear indication that you've got a problem inside the United States.
I don't think it was shaking the trees that produced the breakthrough in the millennium plot. It was that you got a -- Dick Clarke would say a lucky break -- I would say you got an alert customs agent who got it right.
And the interesting thing is that I've checked with Customs and according to their records, they weren't actually on alert at that point.
So I just don't buy the argument that we weren't shaking the trees enough and that something was going to fall out that gave us somehow that little piece of information that would have led to connecting all of those dots.
Juan Cole has already discussed in depth how "the Millennium plot" arrests tended to undermine the Bush administration's pooh-poohing of Richard Clarke's damning critique of Bush's "war on terror":
- What Clarke's book reveals is that the way Ressam was shaken out at Port Angeles by customs agent Diana Dean was not an accident. Rather, Clinton had made Clarke a cabinet member. He was given the authority to call other key cabinet members and security officials to "battle stations," involving heightened alerts in their bureaucracies and daily meetings. Clarke did this with Clinton's approval in December of 1999 because of increased chatter and because the Jordanians caught a break when they cracked Raed al-Hijazi's cell in Amman.
I haven't seen the passages in Clarke's book yet detailing this matter, but Cole leaves the impression that Ressam was caught because Clarke put border officials on high alert -- though this was not in fact the case. In fact, just as Rice asserted today, Ressam was captured primarily through the work of a Customs agent who was simply doing her job as she might normally. (The Seattle Times had a riveting account of the arrest as part of its excellent series on the Ressam case.)
However, that's not the entire story, either.
I checked with Mike Milne, the PIO for Customs in Seattle -- which oversees the Port Angeles bureau where Ressam was caught -- and he confirmed that there was no "high alert" for his agents in December 1999.
"There wasn't such a thing back in those days as elevated alert levels or terrorist-watch kinds of issues within U.S. Customs at that time," Milne said. "What this was was a case of inspectors just doing their jobs as they normally would.
"I've sat through with Diana Dean on a number of occasions when she has done interviews with national, international and local media, and she would just tell you that she was doing her regular line of questioning, trying to determine if this person was somebody that could just be released, whether they required an additional secondary examination. In this case, what piqued her interest was the circuitous routing -- you know, he was going to Seattle via Victoria and Port Angeles. You know -- you can just drive down I-5 if you want to drive from Vancouver to Seattle."
After the Ressam capture, however, Milne said, "We in Customs Service went into an immediate change of how we did operations along the U.S.-Canada border."
So Rice is technically correct. But her "context" for the case omits the bigger picture -- which tends, in fact, to corroborate Clarke's version, and moreover paints Rice and her Team Bush cohorts in a decidedly incompetent light.
The bigger picture includes what happened next: Namely, FBI agents and the Clinton counterterror team, headed by Clarke -- realizing the enormity of what Ressam represented -- sprung quickly into action and soon uncovered most of the rest of his co-conspirators. Ressam, it must be remembered, was scheduled to bomb L.A. International Airport. However, there were at least three other millennium plots, all outside the U.S. but against mostly American targets. (As far as I know, the speculation that the Space Needle was targeted has been mostly discredited.) More to the point, investigators began uncovering a much broader assortment of Al Qaeda terrorist cells operating within the U.S.
This happened largely because of Clarke's "battle station" status for officials in Washington. The Seattle FBI agent investigating the case, Fred Humphries, was quickly brought under the wing of John O'Neill, Clarke's counterterrorism chief (and himself a victim of 9/11, having been forced out by the Bush administration). And O'Neill, as Clarke explained in a PBS interview last year, used Ressam to springboard into a broad swath of terrorist cells -- and because of that, the other components of the Millennium Plot were stymied:
- What happened in the millennium plot was that we found someone who had lived in Boston who was the leader of the planned attack at the millennium in Jordan. We found someone who lived in Canada who was planning a simultaneous attack in Los Angeles. When we started pulling on the strings, what we found was there were connections to people in Seattle, Boston, Brooklyn, Manhattan and other cities throughout the United States.
Every time we looked at one of these individuals who looked like an Al Qaeda person, they lead us to someone else who was an Al Qaeda person -- probably, somewhere else in the United States.
So I think a lot of the FBI leadership, for the first time, realized that O'Neill was right -- that there probably were Al Qaeda people in the United States. They realized that only after they looked at the results of the investigation of the millennium bombing plot. So by February 2000, I think senior people in the FBI were saying there probably is a network here in the United States, and we have to change the way the FBI goes about finding that network.
The work needed to make that change, as Clarke has made clear in his testimony, is a significant part of what he tried to bring to the attention of Bush administration officials shortly after being sworn into office in January 2001. It was the chief reason he asked for a Principals meeting then -- though Rice and the Bush team now contend he was supposedly focused solely on dealing with Al Qaeda abroad. As we all now know, that Principals meeting did not occur until Sept. 4.
Even more significant is the fact that -- just as the Aug. 6 Presidential Daily Briefing that is now the focus of the post-testimony controversy apparently suggests, according to 9/11 commissioners Bob Kerrey and Tim Roemer -- the same warning signs that had alerted officials to the Millennium Plot -- were replicating themselves.
As the Center for American Progress details in its rebuttal to Rice's testimony:
- Page 204 of the Joint Congressional Inquiry into 9/11 noted that "In May 2001, the intelligence community obtained a report that Bin Laden supporters were planning to infiltrate the United States" to "carry out a terrorist operation using high explosives." The report "was included in an intelligence report for senior government officials in August ." In the same month, the Pentagon "acquired and shared with other elements of the Intelligence Community information suggesting that seven persons associated with Bin Laden had departed various locations for Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States." [Sources: Joint Congressional Report, 12/02]
That wasn't all. Just as one of the key conspirators -- namely, Ahmed Ressam -- had been caught in 1999, leading Clarke, O'Neill and the counterterrorism team to break up the rest of the Millennium plot, so had one of the 9/11 conspirators evidently already been captured on Aug. 15: Zacarias Moussaoui.
Did Bush's counterterrorism team spring into action and catch the rest of his co-conspirators? Well, no. But then, we all knew the answer to that.
As the conclusion of the Seattle Times series details:
- This case involved a suspect in custody in Minnesota: Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national of Moroccan descent. Moussaoui was a student pilot who had frightened flight-school trainers in Minneapolis by insisting on learning to steer a jumbo jet while showing no interest in learning to take off or land.
FBI agents in Minneapolis had questioned Moussaoui on Aug. 15 and asked to read files on his laptop computer. He refused to let them.
The agents needed probable cause to persuade a judge to issue a search warrant to seize the laptop. They contacted Ghimenti in Paris, asking him to find out what the French intelligence service might have on Moussaoui.
From the French, Ghimenti obtained a substantial dossier: The French had been tracking Moussaoui since 1995. He had links to al-Qaida. He had journeyed to Afghanistan several times and had trained at a terrorism camp.
Ghimenti passed the information along to Coleen Rowley, chief division counsel in the Minneapolis FBI office, and it went to the counterterrorism section at headquarters.
Rowley and other Minneapolis agents were convinced Moussaoui was a terrorist threat. So was the veteran Ghimenti. But for reasons still unclear, the counterterrorism section in Washington would not seek the warrant.
As Joe Conason put it in today's Salon:
- The public testimony of Condoleezza Rice before the 9/11 commission had a strategy and a structure, to use terms that she favors. The obvious strategy was to swathe every answer to a challenging question from the commissioners in "context" that did more to obfuscate than clarify.
They keep saying, you know, that Sept. 11 was "the day that changed everything." I'm not so sure about that.
But there is one thing I know changed that day: The Bush administration's grotesque incompetence, and its devastating consequences, were laid bare for all the world to see. It's just taken this long for the smoke to clear -- and not even Condi Rice's fresh layer of fog can hide it any longer.
Disturbing the peace
Wednesday, April 07, 2004
Sidney Blumenthal has an excellent piece up at Salon about how Condoleezza Rice not only botched the war on terrorism, she also managed to sabotage negotiations for peace in the Middle East: [registration req'd]
- In January 2002, Rice launched a serious effort to restart the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. She hired Flynt Leverett, who was a professional foreign service officer on the policy planning staff of the State Department, as director of the initiative on the National Security Council. Rice told him and those assigned to work with him that she understood that the absence of peace process was hurting the war on terrorism and that Leverett should propose any and all measures he thought necessary, regardless of potential political controversy. "She told us we should go for the long bomb, using a football metaphor," Leverett recalled to me.
Leverett then developed a plan on final status dealing with security, Palestinian political reform and Jerusalem; the core of the plan was essentially the same as President Clinton's ultimate proposal. Rice rejected it; her own mandated team had come up with something she judged as "unworkable" and politically untenable for Bush, who would have been forced to confront Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to enact it.
On April 4, Bush delivered a speech calling for a "two state" solution, but without any details, and sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region. Leverett traveled with him. Powell gained agreement for the basic outline of the original plan, but just as he was to announce his breakthrough in a press conference Rice intervened, instructing him not to discuss any political process and that the whole burden of accountability must be put on the Palestinians and none on the Israelis. In private, Powell seethed but did not fight Rice.
Rice had crumbled in the face of internal political opposition from the neoconservative armada. "In the end, the neoconservatives in the Pentagon and the vice president's office, plus Karl Rove's political shop, prevailed," Leverett told me.
As longtime readers may recall from this post, this is not the first time that Republican neoconservatives have wrecked the hopes for a negotiated peace in the Middle East. They interfered with Bill Clinton's efforts as well:
- Richard Perle sabotages peace talks
Richard Perle, a veteran cold war warrior and former assistant secretary of state, urged the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, not to agree to any settlement which left the future status of Jerusalem unresolved, according to the New York Post website.
The website quoted a message received by Mr Barak yesterday from two of his emissaries, Yoram Ben-Ze'ev and Yossi Alpher. The two men said Mr Perle "asked us to send a clear message" to Mr Barak that it would be a "catastrophe" if the Jerusalem question was not dealt with, and urged him "to walk away" from the Camp David negotiations if faced with that outcome.
Elliott Abrams, who seems to be the chief culprit in the Rice matter, is of course a Perle protege.
Restoring honor and dignity
White House spokesman Scott McClellan has been caught once again pretending that up is down (while of course admonishing reporters to do likewise), in this report from USA Today's Mimi Hall:
- Dealing with criticism that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice wouldn't testify in public before the 10-member commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, White House spokesman Scott McClellan complained last month that when she testified in private, "only five members showed up" to hear what she had to say.
What McClellan didn't tell reporters was that on Nov. 21 -- long before Rice met with the five commissioners in February -- the White House counsel's office had sent the commission a letter saying no more than three commissioners could attend meetings with White House aides of Rice's rank.
Given that demand, "we are a little surprised that the White House has repeatedly implied to the public that commissioners were uninterested in attending these meetings," commission spokesman Al Felzenberg said Tuesday.
Susan Strahan at CJR Campaign Desk has more, pointing out that it took Hall -- who at least had the gumption to check out a basic fact -- a whole month to do so:
- Unlike McClellan, Felzenberg didn't do his own lecturing to the media about "context." Or even about that little trick they teach you in Journalism 101 -- get both sides of the story. As in: Pick up a phone.
By now, the picture should be clear to everyone in the press room: This White House will lie without compunction. Everything it says needs double-checking. It's a simple matter of integrity.
Bob Somerby at The Daily Howler has been documenting for years now just how abysmal the Washington press corps has become. This is yet another crystalline example of just how lazy and propaganda-prone the journalism coming out of D.C. is these days.
Ralph and the right
Tuesday, April 06, 2004
Ralph Nader's campaign -- which just took a shot to the groin from Oregon voters, who declined to put show up in sufficient numbers at a Nader rally to get him on the ballot -- keeps getting stranger and stranger. From the Hartford Courant (registration required):
- Nader Seeks Strange Bedfellows
WASHINGTON -- Ralph Nader, while vowing his presidential run is as an independent, is embarking on a new strategy that, come Election Day, may find him running as an independent, a Green, a Populist and a Reform Party candidate all at once.
In recent days, he has met and exchanged letters with third-party officials to negotiate what he says is a pragmatic strategy that would help him gain access to all 50 ballots.
"I would still be an independent candidate, I would just appear on their ballot lines," Nader said this week.
But such a hodgepodge of party affiliations threatens to muddle his message of pure independence, not to mention giving critics more reasons to attack his politics. Already, it is creating controversy within third parties. And it has some fans wondering whether this pragmatic approach is at odds with the central idealism of his candidacy.
"It's weird," said John B. Anderson, the 1980 independent presidential candidate. "That, to me, would shred the credibility of his effort."
We've already noted Nader's transparent willingness to form alliances with right-wing extremists in the pursuit of the presidency. That propensity, however, may create some problems down the road:
- If Nader's strategy works as well as La Follette's, he may face a prospect of flatly contradicting one of the parties he represents.
On immigration, for instance, the Greens' current platform says: "We must accept the contributions and rights of our immigrants." The Reform Party national chairman, in an interview this week, described a different stance: . "We are sick and tired of this country being flooded by immigrants," he said.
For now, Nader said, he agreed with most points on both platforms.
I think it's similarly safe to agree that Nader is rapidly representing everything he's supposed to stand against.
Willie Horton, Texas style
The ghost of the "Willie Horton" campaign of 1988 is hovering over the congressional race in Texas between Democrat Martin Frost and Republican Pete Sessions.
An outside group unaffiliated with the Sessions campaign -- specifically, the anti-immigrant Coalition for Future American Workers, one of John Tanton's front groups -- has begun running smear ads that present false "facts" about Frost' record, and do so with a not-so-subtle appeal to racist sentiments:
- The ads, purchased on four Dallas television stations, are full of details about Frost's positions on upcoming legislation. However, Frost claims the ads' claims are flat-out wrong.
"His bill will import 250,000 more workers to take jobs and drive down wages," the ad intones.
"They just want to make a statement that I support 250,000 more foreign workers annually, when that is President Bush's position, not mine," Frost said.
Plus, the ads feature many pictures of dark-skinned immigrants. Frost calls them racially divisive, and claims the coalition behind them gets money that is tainted.
"They got $1.4 million from the Pioneer Fund, which is a white supremacist group -- clearly documented," Frost said.
As the Dallas Morning News story [registration req'd] on the matter makes clear, Sessions' campaign is claiming no association with the ads:
- Sessions campaign manager Chris Homan said Mr. Sessions has no knowledge of the organization sponsoring the advertisements, the Coalition for the Future American Worker, and no involvement with them.
"We're not going to engage groups like this in any capacity," Mr. Homan said.
The CFAW continues to claim that it's attacking Frost for his record, but their claims have no relation to reality:
- Mr. Frost said that no bill he is sponsoring or co-sponsoring will ever give amnesty in Texas to hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers.
"I have no idea what they're talking about, quite frankly," Mr. Frost said. "I'm for the freedom of the press. I'm for the First Amendment. But I'm not for people to lie with impunity."
As many of you may recall, the Horton ads (which played a big role in sinking Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential candidacy) were ostensibly the creation of an "independent" group called Americans For Bush -- though, as Joe Conason later reported, the ad's real creators were GOP operatives Floyd Brown and Craig Shirley.
The Texas ads, likewise, have the smell of Tom DeLay all over them. Just like his fingerprints are all over the use of Treasury Department employees to analyze John Kerry's tax proposal.
Terror and the war in Iraq
Jessica Stern, whose previous work I recently cited, weighs in at Salon with an important analysis of the Bush administration's "war on terror":
- How the war in Iraq has damaged the war on terrorism
The false idea that the United States is engaged in a crusade against the Islamic world is a critical component of the Islamist nihilists' worldview, and spreading this idea is critical to their success. The unprovoked attack on Iraq, followed by an occupation that is widely perceived as inept and arbitrary, even by our British ally, has confirmed this view among potential sympathizers. Every time American troops shoot into a crowd, even in self-defense, the image of America as a reckless, ruthless oppressor is highlighted. Televised pictures of American soldiers and their tanks in Iraq are a "deeply humiliating scene to Muslims," explained Saudi dissident Saad al-Faqih, who calls the war in Iraq a "gift" to Osama bin Laden. Unsurprisingly, terrorist recruiters are using the war and the continuing occupation to mobilize recruits -- not only inside Iraq but outside as well. Intelligence officials in the United States, Europe and Africa have reported that the new recruits they are seeing since the war became imminent are younger, with a more menacing attitude.
... The war in Iraq has split the allies, not the terrorists. It has turned Iraq into a Mecca for international terrorists, and mobilized local Shiite and Salafi jihadist groups that had previously posed a minimal threat. It has facilitated connections between terrorists and those with formal military experience in Saddam's army, the lethal nightmare that the invasion was supposed to have thwarted. Antipathy toward the United States, not only in Iraq and throughout the entire Islamic world, but in Europe as well, has become a dangerous trend exploited by terrorists. Even as we tout our successes in rounding up al-Qaida terrorists, the broader movement inspired by bin Laden and ignited by the invasion of Iraq is recruiting new nihilist minions throughout the world. The war in Iraq has not only been a distraction from the war on terrorism; it has strengthened our enemies in ways that continue to surprise and horrify us. Where will we be surprised next?
If Stern is right, Ramadi is just the first of those surprises.
Monday, April 05, 2004
[Graffiti at an abandoned business in West Seattle, April 1994]
- Come dowsed in mud, soaked in bleach
As I want you to be
As a trend, as a friend, as an old memoria
Ten years ago today I was riding my bike to work -- it was a little after 11, I think -- when I rode past Kurt Cobain's home, which was along my daily route. And I knew something was up.
The house was one of the many mansions situated along Lake Washington Boulevard. The estate sits in a little depression of sorts, right next to a tiny green place called Viretta Park, which has mostly a lot of steeply sloped lawn, a couple of trees and a bench.
The gated entrance to the estate, though, was crawling with police. Inside the gate I could see an ambulance, and outside were several cruisers. I kept riding, since I was still nearly an hour away from work.
At the time I was still the news editor of the Journal American, the Bellevue-based newspaper that has since transmogrified into the suburban King County Journal (I stepped down from the job shortly thereafter). When I pulled up to the newsroom a little after noon, I notified our police reporter and entertainment editor of what I had seen. Just about then, video began arriving over the local news stations from the scene. We sent our reporters out to chase the story, and they shortly confirmed the initial reports: Kurt Cobain had been found dead inside, the victim of an apparent suicide by gunshot.
In the ensuing days we partook, almost by necessity, of the media circus surrounding his death. There were the necessary profiles and biographies, the photos from the scene and from his career; the columns and letters tut-tutting the latest rock n'roll suicide.
I kept riding my bike that week past the place, and for the first few days it was a circus there, too -- TV trucks and teenagers and gawkers. My return ride took me past the place late at night, and for several days there were steady candlelight vigils.
Viretta Park, which is not much more than an acre in actual size (part of the park is a wooded slope), became the center of the Cobain mourners. Even after the circus settled down, the park attracted a steady trickle of daytime visitors. The center of it all was the solitary bench, which not only collected a wealth of graffiti, but also became a message center for parents trying to reach their runaway teens. Here is a shot of the bench about a month later.
I went to the memorial service at Seattle Center and watched the young people climbing on the fountain, and listened to Courtney Love's strangely self-serving eulogy. I watched the TV specials, listened to the Nirvana sets on the radio, even listened to Rush Limbaugh's revealingly inhuman rant against Cobain on his radio show (""Kurt Cobain was, ladies and gentleman, I just -- he was a worthless shred of human debris...").
I was oddly disconnected from it all, partly because I hadn't ever had a chance to see Nirvana live or meet Cobain. I wanted to feel something, but all I had was regret. I'd had a chance to see Cobain just a few months before -- at the MTV taping at Pier 48, and had missed it, thinking, well, they'll be around a few years. I can see them sometime. When I go to my grave, it will be one of my real regrets.
I was 20 and living in Idaho in 1977, the year punk broke. Though at the time I was a devotee of more mainstream fare -- the usual, you know: Led Zeppelin, Yes, Genesis, The Who -- I had developed a taste for more obscure fare as well, from Bruce Springsteen (before he hit it big; I hated Born to Run as a sellout, and to this day think that The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle is his best work) to Roxy Music.
The first punk album I ever heard was the first Ramones album, which threw me for a complete musical loop and hooked me all at once. Within a few months, I was gathering up all the Sex Pistols and Damned and X-Ray Spex and Buzzcocks and Clash albums I could find. In Idaho, as you can imagine, this was a feat.
Good punk only lasted a couple of years. It split off into hardcore -- some of which I liked, some not -- and New Wave (likewise) and who knows what else. But it never really made it big, except among people who had the ears to hear. We were like a secret club. Me especially -- I was working straight jobs and looked straight, and it threw people off when I played punk for them. I always gravitated to other people who liked punk.
One of these was my friend Tim, who ran the record shop in Missoula where I would scout out albums to review for the local paper. Tim always had great taste, and had forgotten more about music than most people know, and he loved punk. We used to both talk about how we liked to put on "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols" first thing in the morning.
Another kid who liked to hang out in Tim's record shop was this basketball player from Big Sandy who played bass in local bands and eventually moved to Seattle to make it big. His name was Jeff Ament.
I followed out to Seattle a couple of years later (in 1989), and when I began checking out the music scene, was pleased to see Jeff doing well. He played in one of the city's seminal punk bands, Green River, and then making waves with a much more straight-up rock band called Mother Love Bone. But MLB's lead singer, Andrew Wood, died of a heroin overdose, a tragedy that made big headlines locally. It was a precursor of the doom that seemed to hang over the Seattle scene.
It was in this time frame that the movement everyone called "grunge" seemed to come together, and better rock journalists than I (notably Charles Cross) have admirably charted its course. It seemed to have three or four real internal factions, bringing together under one "sound" bands that in fact inhabited very different universes: Soundgarden, which was more in the mold of a straight-up heavy metal band; Pearl Jam -- to which Tim's friend Jeff Ament gravitated -- who played mainstream guitar rock; and angry punks, like Mudhoney and Screaming Trees.
But the best of the punks, without question, was Nirvana.
They played punk the way it is supposed to be played: Loud, fast, pissed-off. And on top of that, they wrote great fucking songs. (It's difficult enough to produce a single album on which all the cuts, if not great, are really good; and Nirvana made three of them.) And because they were punk, I loved them. The other bands were good, they were interesting; but you only had to listen to Nirvana once to know they were great.
However, because I wasn't writing about music much my first few years in Seattle, I was lackadaisical about seeing them. I hung out at local music bars on the nights I could get away -- I was doing evening shifts at the JA -- but it wasn't often enough. I caught Mudhoney and Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, the Posies and Screaming Trees, but somehow never was in the right place at the right time to see Nirvana.
I had that one last chance, in December 1993, to see them, when I was offered a press pass to go the Pier 48 performance. But I had some duty or other pressing upon me and gave it to another reporter instead, a middle-aged fellow who surprised me by coming back and raving about what a great show it had been. I was jealous.
The truth was, though, that the rot was already setting in around the grunge scene then. It had become a cliché of the local comedy show that record executives were descending on the city and trying to scout out and sign anyone who could pass themselves off as a Seattle band. And many of them were crap, but knew how to play off the grunge image. Sad, but all too true.
Cobain's death was the stake that plunged right through the heart of an already dying moment in music. It marked the end of "grunge" -- and just as well. Many of the big-name acts just crumbled; others, like Alice in Chains, succumbed eventually to the same doom. The surviving bands -- notably Pearl Jam -- still are capable of turning out music with integrity, but it isn't vital anymore, not the way it once was. Or maybe that was an illusion.
I've read Cobain's diaries and tried to understand what it was that tormented him so. I wonder if it wasn't quite literally fame that killed him. Cobain seems to have been acutely aware that the music business is built on hype, so even a real artist can never know if what he's doing really matters.
The massive popularity that hit Nirvana seems to have undermined the very integrity of his own sense of who he was. The cognitive dissonance of feeling like the same loser he had been for all those years, while being assaulted by the fake adulation that comes with a No. 1 album, seems to have driven him to want to destroy it all. Most suicides kill themselves not because they feel sorry for themselves or are simply depressed, but because they are in unending psychic pain, and after awhile, suicide seems like the best way to relieve it. Cobain, in the end, seems to fit this mold.
Cobain's suicide also underscored the rampant phoniness in the grunge scene. For a music whose image is all about artistic integrity, the flow of money proved to be poison for the community well. Egos were inflated and then burst. Once-good bands began miring down in mediocrity. And drugs, particularly heroin, were just killing both the artists and the artistry.
By 1996 or so, it was clear grunge was gone for good. Seattle moved on. Its music scene has become healthier in recent years -- more diverse, but not cohesive either -- and culturally, everyone seems to have forgotten Nirvana and what they once meant.
Except for the young kids. I still see a lot of Cobain T-shirts. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, Viretta Park hosts a gathering of them to listen and remember. This year, the 10th anniversary, was no different.
What was a little different -- besides the larger crowds at Viretta -- was that this year the media remembered. On previous anniversaries, little has been said or observed; but this being the 10th, they checked in with the dutiful memorials. Both the Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer carried remembrances this weekend. But it all has a hollow ring to it.
The reality is that Seattle has had a great deal of difficulty dealing with its fallen stars over the years, regardless of how significant their contributions. Perhaps it is, as Cobain seems to have suspected, the curse of Frances Farmer.
Certainly, Jimi Hendrix -- who met a similarly troubled death -- inhabited the same sort of limbo for years as far as the city was concerned. Sure, he may have been the greatest rock guitarist of all time, but the civic and business leaders recoiled at the very idea of honoring someone who had died because of a "drug overdose" (or so went the myth; Hendrix actually died of asphyxiation, not an OD).
For years, the only Hendrix memorial to be found anywhere in Seattle was a brass plaque imbedded in a rock at the Woodland Park Zoo, donated by a local radio station. You could always drive down to Renton and visit his grave (completely nondescript, except for the Stratocaster engraved in the granite). Nowadays, of course, we have the Experience Music Project, the ugly-but-cool rock museum built around a great Hendrix collection; but it took Paul Allen's clear philanthropy (the thing loses money like a sieve) to get it built, which in itself raises all the usual conflicts about corporate money's role in rock. Ah well.
Likewise, there has not, to my knowledge, been any serious discussion of a Cobain memorial. Seattle has moved on, and no one seems to want to remember.
The little A-frame house where Cobain killed himself is gone now. It was a guest house on the estate, and in fact was quite visible from the park, including the upper room where the suicide occurred:
Courtney Love had it torn down before she sold the place and moved off to Malibu (where her sellout career has recently been reaching new heights). After she moved away, the main mansion itself was torn down and completely replaced as well.
The only really fitting memorial to Cobain is in his hometown, Aberdeen, a depressed logging center near the Washington Coast. If you go just outside the city limits, there is a bridge over the Wishkah River that is a place Cobain used to inhabit when he was a homeless teenager. Underneath it is a marvelous collection of graffiti, most of it in Cobain's honor.
But Cobain -- who actually only lived here for a year and a half -- deserves better from Seattle. The circumstances of his death can't obscure the fact that he was one of those momentous figures in music history, just as Hendrix was. As Vernon Reid observed in the recent Rolling Stone that placed Cobain among rock's 50 greatest icons (he'd probably be in a Top 10, for that matter), "Cobain changed the course of where the music went."
Then again, one can just imagine Cobain cringing at the very idea of a memorial. It's hard to imagine what shape a fitting tribute could possibly even take. Maybe the whole concept of memorializing someone is anathema to what Nirvana was about.
Oh well, whatever, nevermind.
Stinging Nettle is reporting that anti-abortion activists are driving around Raleigh, N.C., today in large trucks adorned with photos of aborted fetuses and the word "Choice" in block letters across them:
- If these guys were dark-skinned and bearded, they'd have been pulled out of their trucks on suspicion of terrorism.
But they are not. When they kill doctors, it's not terrorism, in fact it's actually debated whether or not they were committing justifiable homicide. When they blow up buildings, it's not terrorism - no, they retreat to the mountains and become folk heroes.
Now, these guys are implicitly threatening the population of downtown Raleigh, and no one pays any attention. Really, what other message is conveyed by repeatedly stopping a large moving van right next to the auxiliary Federal Building/U.S. Courthouse? Oklahoma City is the implicit threat. Do you doubt what would happen if the trucks had ten foot high letters saying "Allah'u Akbar!"?
I'm sure Glenn Reynolds would be all over it, in that case.
Bringing It On
[From Without Sanctuary]
It is no great surprise that the photos from Fallujah last week of the burned corpses of American "contractors" being strung up from a bridge while their murderers celebrated evoked all kinds of strong feelings, across a pretty broad range. Some of these -- notably Daily Kos' -- have in turn evoked extremely powerful counter-responses, and further counters to these.
Images like these always evoke real horror -- especially, for Americans, if the corpses belong to their countrymen. When that happens, the lust for revenge comes rushing alongside.
I was struck, however, by how similar these images were to those from the lynching era, when black men were routinely killed by mass mobs in the most horrifying ways imaginable -- including torturing them by flaying and dismembering them while still alive, setting them aflame, and then finally raising them aloft, often with a chain. The image above of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in particular was reminiscent -- not merely for the horror of the corpse itself, but the horror of the smug satisfaction on the faces of his lynchers. This was the same horror, I think, most people felt watching those children celebrate by mutilating American corpses.
Of course, Billmon, in a marvelously insightful post, has already remarked on much the same, observing:
- I'll leave it to others to decide whether the Iraqis who celebrated the deaths of their enemies today by decorating a local bridge with their remains are worse, better or equal to the lynchers of early 20th century America, who decorated trees and streetlamps with the victims of a segregationist reign of terror. At a minimum, though, history suggests the connection between "terrorism, culture and barbaric scenes" isn't quite as tight as some of our cuture war idealogues seem to think.
Predictably, this view has been attacked as a "blame America first" mentality, which is the smear du jour for any attempt to take a thoughtful approach to what occurred in Fallujah. This is not terribly surprising, because Billmon was making a subtle point about the nature of violence that cuts deeply against the grain of jingoist reactionarism.
Perhaps the reason the pictures from Fallujah are so disturbing is that, as Billmon suggests, they hold up a mirror to us. The violence we visit readily on others is waiting to be visited on us in return; the continuously self-begetting nature of violence just spirals onward and upward.
"Bring it on," we say. The mob in Fallujah does so -- knowing full well that retribution awaits, and shouts by the horror of its act its own defiance: "Bring it on."
America the Bringer of Death is well known to Iraqis. They first encountered it in the 1991 Gulf War. They came to be on intimate terms with it during the invasions, especially the bombings. But they are not alone.
The Native Americans who populated the land first knew it well. It is hard to say where the cycle of violence began first, but by the time its spiral had completed for them, the American government had mercilessly rubbed them out.
The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki know it well too. As did, of course, black Americans in the South.
I have discussed previously the nature of the systematic lynching of thousands of black people in America between the years 1880 and 1930.
- There are many postcards that recorded these lynchings, because the participants were rather proud of their involvement. This is clear from the postcards themselves, which frequently showed not merely the corpse of the victim but many of the mob members, whose visages ranged from grim to grinning. Sometimes, as in the Lige Daniels case, children were intentionally given front-row views. A lynching postcard from Florida in 1935, of a migrant worker named Rubin Stacy who had allegedly "threatened and frightened a white woman," shows a cluster of young girls gathered round the tree trunk, the oldest of them about 12, with a beatific expression as she gazes on his distorted features and limp body, a few feet away.
Indeed, lynchings seemed to be cause for outright celebration in the community. Residents would dress up to come watch the proceedings, and the crowds of spectators frequently grew into the thousands. Afterwards, memento-seekers would take home parts of the corpse or the rope with which the victim was hung. Sometimes body parts -- knuckles, or genitals, or the like -- would be preserved and put on public display as a warning to would-be black criminals.
That was the purported moral purpose of these demonstrations: Not only to utterly wipe out any black person merely accused of a crimes against whites, but to do it in a fashion intended to warn off future perpetrators. This was reflected in contemporary press accounts, which described the lynchings in almost uniformly laudatory terms, with the victim's guilt unquestioned, and the mob identified only as "determined men." Not surprisingly, local officials (especially local police forces) not only were complicit in many cases, but they acted in concert to keep the mob leaders anonymous; thousands of coroners' reports from lynchings merely described the victims' deaths occurring "at the hands of persons unknown." Lynchings were broadly viewed as simply a crude, but understandable and even necessary, expression of community will. This was particularly true in the South, where blacks were viewed as symbolic of the region's continuing economic and cultural oppression by the North. As an 1899 editorial in the Newnan, Georgia, Herald and Advertiser explained it: "It would be as easy to check the rise and fall of the ocean's tide as to stem the wrath of Southern men when the sacredness of our firesides and the virtue of our women are ruthlessly trodden under foot."
The lynching campaign drew on many of the nation's darker wellsprings -- particularly its taste for violence -- but it served one primary purpose, the subjugation of the black population:
- There were, of course, other components of black suppression: segregation in the schools, disenfranchisement of the black vote, and the attendant Jim Crow laws that were common throughout the South. But lynching was the linchpin in the system, because it was in effect state-supported terrorism whose stated intent was to suppress blacks and other minorities, in no small part by eliminating non-whites as competitors for economic gain. These combined to give lynching a symbolic value as a manifestation of white supremacy. The lynch mob was not merely condoned but in fact celebrated as an expression of the white community's will to keep African-Americans in their thrall. As a phrase voiced commonly in the South expressed it, lynching was a highly effective means of "keeping the niggers down."
Of course, the threat of the rape of white women and other pretenses for lynching presented handy pretexts for these horrors. As always, the violence was predicated on a fear of future violence; lynching was excused as a preemptive act.
Yet in reality a black person could be lynched for literally no reason at all -- in some cases, simply for defending himself from physical assault, or for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lynching laughed at the notion of blacks advancing through hard work; moderately prosperous blacks who managed to do so were often the first targets of angry lynch mobs intent on dealing with "uppity" blacks.
And God have mercy on any black communities who tried to stand up to this violence. When this happened, the result was commonly known as a "race riot," but what these typically comprised were wholesale lethal assaults on black communities by whites. They became particularly prevalent during the "Red Summer" of 1919, when the riots broke out in some 26 American cities.
The most notable of these race riots occurred in 1921 in Tulsa, where a prosperous black population was literally bombed out of existence over two days of complete lawlessness. The rioting was set off by a black youth's alleged assault on a local white girl that later turned out to be harmless consensual contact. The youth was promptly arrested without incident, but the local press played it up with garish headlines that ignored the real nature of the incident, and one Tulsa newspaper publicly called for the young man's lynching.
This attempt, however, met with real resistance from the black community. When a group of local blacks attempted to ward off a lynch mob by meeting them at the jailhouse, the fighting broke out. Soon the entire district was swarmed over by gun-wielding whites who began mowing down black residents at random, setting fire to homes and businesses, and looting, raping and maiming. There are reports that an airplane flew over the black community and dropped incendiary bombs. By the time the violence had subsided, as many as three hundred black people were believed killed, many of them buried in a mass grave, and thirty-five city blocks lay charred. The death toll has never been properly calculated, largely because of the ways the bodies were disposed of, but some counts reach as high as 300 or more. And Tulsa's African-American community, at one time known as the "Negro Wall Street" because of its prosperousness, was never the same. Most of the survivors simply left.
We all like to think of America as a peace-loving and "civilized" nation, where freedom and justice reign supreme. But our history tells us otherwise.
And the point, of course, is not to suggest that what happened in Fallujah was some kind of response to the harm inflicted on black Americans a century ago. Rather, what it suggests is that we do not so easily escape our history by such simple distancing mechanisms as saying -- as the right is wont to do -- that hey, that happened a hundred years ago, and I didn't have anything to do with it.
The reality, however, is that there is a dark side to our preferred self-image as a beacon of hope and light to the rest of the world -- that alongside whatever democracy America has created, it has also imposed its will ruthlessly and bloodily, mainly through our seemingly endless capacity for violence. This capacity has never gone away; it has merely changed its face. In 1916, it came with rope and fire and chains. In 2004, it comes with incendiary bombing attacks delivered with the push of a button from high in the air. Either way, we produce hundreds of charred corpses, thousands of personal tragedies, and bottomless wells of hatred for our nation.
This is not to "blame America" -- it is to recognize a reality about how the rest of the world sees us, and more importantly, how the spiral of violence works. To the extent that America conducts its business with the rest of the world without resorting to violence, then we probably are a beacon of hope for democracy; but when we unleash the dogs of war -- especially when, as we have in Iraq, we do so under false pretenses -- then we open up the Pandora's Box of evil that colors both our history and our present in shades of red and black.
It's become much easier, thanks to technology, for us to indulge this violence, almost thoughtlessly. "Bring it on," says the president, with a smirk resembling those on the faces of Jesse Washington's lynchers. And his cheerleaders indulge the same arrogance of will -- vowing, as we always have, the most terrible and unending violence for anyone who dares stand in our way, or most of all, stand up to us, to threaten to visit upon us the same violence we have just visited upon them.
Justifying everything under the banner of the terrorist attacks on America on 9/11 -- attacks which, as we now know, the people of Iraq had nothing to do with -- we sit in our comfy chairs typing away on computers and urge our leaders to "nuke Fallujah," as Kathleen Parker so judiciously suggested the other day. Bill O'Reilly can broadcast to the nation his belief in a "final solution" to how we deal with Fallujah. Little Green Footballs and the Anti-Idiotartian Rottweiler likewise fulminate about leveling the city, and Instapundit nods approvingly. The ghosts of those Tulsa newspaper editors live on.
So there is no small irony in the blustering of these same right-wing bloggers over Daily Kos' remarks, particularly his callous dismissal of the fate of four contractors. If you believe, as I do, that each man's death lessens us, then there can be no condoning such sentiments. But they pale in contrast to the monstrous indifference to death that has been a major component of the "warblogger" contingent since well before the war. And it must be noted that not only is this kind of callousness out of character for Kos, he has apologized for making it -- better than could ever be said of his tormentors.
These are people who, after all, have regularly described Muslims in the most degrading terms available, often depicting them as mere vermin or, metaphorically, as diseases to be exterminated. They even sneer at the deaths of their fellow Americans, such as Rachel Corrie, if they happen to be of the wrong political persuasion. Instapundit is hardly immune from making outrageous and cruelly thoughtless remarks -- including those directed at Hispanic organizations, or soft-pedaling the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II; no one on the right, it must be noted, has ever held Reynolds accountable for this commentary.
The whole Kos dustup, in this context, is just nakedly fraudulent. Their outrage at Kos' callousness is not based on any respect for human life -- it is, as Matt Stoller makes clear, a "gotcha" game whose sole purpose is to score political points and derail the liberal blogosphere's rising influence. Kos was wrong (at least in terms of his sentiments; his factual point about the comparative treatment of American GIs was an important one to make); this does not make them right.
Particularly not when it comes to their proposed "final solution" for Fallujah, a city of 250,000, only a handful of whom participated in the recent atrocities. These acts, it should be understood, were a classic terrorist provocation, taken directly from Mao's tactics in the Chinese civil war. The entire purpose is to get American forces to overreact and take punitive action against the general populace. This turns the populace against the occupiers, making the terrorists' work that much easier, since they are no longer seen as extremists by the public but widely accepted and sympathetic freedom fighters. It also makes for fertile recruiting ground among the victims of the inevitable ensuing tragedies.
This is how the cycle of violence works, and it starts when we visit violence preemptively upon people we believe, often without real reason, threaten us. They fight back, and we visit more violence upon more of them as a way of "sending a message." And at each step, we create more hatred, and more future acts of violence. We can nuke Fallujah, sure; but when we do so, we sow the seeds for a thousand more Fallujahs, and a hundred more 9/11s.
There is another, better way, and that is to respond proportionately -- reserving retribution simply for those who committed the atrocities, and finding ways to mitigate the festering sympathy for terrorism that pervades the Iraqi countryside. We should pray, for the sake of all our souls, that our leaders in Iraq find it.
Because, as the looming civil war makes clear, their time is running very short.
Bring it on, indeed.