Rhetoric in the Air; Reality on the Ground
President Bush inaugurated his second term with these words: "By our efforts, we have lit a fire . . . and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world." (Transcript of President Bush’s Inaugural Address, The New York Times, Jan. 21, 2005). Bush’s "fire of freedom" could not even reach the brightest corners of Washington, D.C., never mind "the darkest corners our world."
The Inauguration was marked by unprecedented security in the nation’s capital. The New York Times reported, "As the capital prepared to celebrate President Bush’s inauguration, the city appeared on Tuesday more like a place under siege." (Jan. 19, 2005) It was not about "freedom" and "liberty" but about controlling and monitoring the movements of celebrants and protesters. It was about security fences; concrete barriers; street-closings; security check points; metal detectors; pat-down searches; designated zones for protesters; a no-fly zone for private aircraft; bomb-sniffing dogs; sharpshooters on rooftops; surveillance aircraft overhead; Coast Guard cutters on the Potomac River; security teams sweeping hotels and office buildings fronting the parade route; some 10,000 law enforcement personnel surrounding the White House and Capital, and, at points, four deep lining the 1.7-mile parade route; secret service agents trotting alongside the President’s armored limousine with its "darkly tinted windows . . . within which his and Mrs. Bush’s hands could be seen waving languidly." (The Boston Globe, Jan 21, 2005) The contradiction between President Bush’s rhetoric (uttering "freedom" 27 times and "liberty" 15 times) and the reality on the ground provides its own commentary.
Iraq contains a similar commentary. President Bush hailed the January 30 election there as a " ‘resounding success’," and "saw the vote as a victory for his larger vision of bringing democracy to the Arab world." He declared, "Today, the people of Iraq have spoken to the world, and the world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East" (The Boston Globe, Jan. 31, 2005).
"The people of Iraq have spoken to the world"? Not all of them. What the world did not hear-or see-were the cries of Iraqi people on the ground being "softened" up for "election day" by a campaign of increased deadly American air strikes against assumed "terrorist targets"-Fallujah-like flattening "campaigning." Never mind the earlier screaming and moaning voices of some 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians, mostly women and children, who happened to be in the way of President Bush’s "larger vision of bringing democracy to the Arab world."
Like the Inauguration in Washington, D.C., security was the order of the day for the election in Iraq. The military power of 150,000 American soldiers was on the ground and Apache choppers in the air, with about 15,000 more US troops deployed during the run-up to the election. If a fraction of such security had been provided in Florida to insure fairness during the 2000 presidential election, thousands of voters, especially Black Americans, would not have been disenfranchised. George Bush would not have been installed president by a Republican-favored U.S. Supreme Court. And there would not have been a manufactured need for a pre-emptive war against Iraq.
It did not matter that armed Iraqi resistance to the American occupation and its arranged election prevented many voters from knowing the names of the candidates and their policies before entering the voting booth. Nor did it matter that the Sunni Arabs, over 30% of the population, planned to boycott the election. What evidently mattered was getting large numbers of the Shias majority to the election booth-and of having television and other cameras film and photograph their long lines and voting for American consumption.
Journalist Robert Fisk, writing from Baghdad, called this occupation-imposed and orchestrated "election" a "bloody charade." He writes, "The big television networks have been given a list of five polling stations where they will be ‘allowed’ to film . . . four of the five are in Shiite Muslim areas where the polling will probably be high." How will it play out? Fisk says, "Iraqis bravely vote despite the bloodcurdling threats of the enemies of democracy. At last, the US and British policies have reached fruition," with "a real functioning democracy in place . . . so the occupiers can leave soon. Or next year. Or in a decade or so." A "democracy" dependent on US force not Iraqi freedom.
The "bloody charade," Robert Fisk states, is that the courageous Iraqis who participated in the election will form a parliament and write a constitution, but they "will have no power," i.e., "no control over their own oil . . . over the streets of Baghdad, let alone the rest of the country, no workable army or loyal police force. Their only power," Fisk writes of the reality on the ground, "is that of a American military and its 150,000 soldiers whom we could see on the main intersections of Baghdad yesterday." (The Sunday Independent, Jan. 31, 2005)
President Bush began his State of the Union address before Congress with rhetoric that filled the air and elicited sustained, enthusiastic applause: "Members of Congress, fellow citizens. As the new Congress gathers, all of us in the elected branches of government share a great privilege. We’ve been placed in office by the votes of the people we serve. And tonight that is a privilege we share with newly elected leaders of Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, Ukraine and a free and sovereign Iraq." (Transcript of State of the Union Address and cleared by the White House, The New York Times, Feb. 3, 2005; tape of Address)
Hidden was the reality on the ground: US control of the reality under the ground-oil! And new military bases to dominate the energy resources and alliances in the whole Middle East region to speed the advance of Bush’s "larger vision of bringing democracy to the Arab world."
President Bush ended his State of the Union address with the same rhetoric with which he began: "The road of Providence is uneven and unpredictable. Yet we know where it leads. It leads to freedom. . . . freedom’s power to change the world. We are part of a great venture: . . . to spread the peace that freedom brings." (Ibid) Bush
repeatedly says, "Freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to every man and woman in the world." Substitute Christ for "freedom" and one sees the underlying missionary zeal and evangelizing dynamic of domination at work. What better way to disguise domination than by doing it in the name of the very opposite of motives, "freedom."
"In the name of Exxon" or "Halliburton" obviously would not summon working class mothers and fathers to offer up their sons and daughters for global corporate domination and profit. Nor would they readily sacrifice precious loved ones "in the name of Christ" as "god’s gift to the world." "Freedom," a revered, universal value, and fear provide the necessary patriotic and providential appeal to seduce Christian people especially into killing rather than loving their neighbor as themselves as Jesus commanded.
The Bush administration is believed to have made the reality on the ground disappear with a hug. In his State of the Union address, the President introduced, to enthusiastic applause, a member of the audience: "one of Iraq’s leading democracy and human rights advocates . . . Sofia Taleb al-Suhail" who "says of her country, ‘we were occupied for 35 years by Saddam Hussein. That was the real occupation. Thank you to the American people who paid the cost, but most of all to the soldiers.’" (Ibid)
Sofia Taleb al-Suhail was seated beside Mrs. Bush, right above the mother and father of a slain US soldier to whom President Bush shortly thereafter paid tribute: "One name we honor is Marine Corps Sergeant Byron Norwood of Pflugerville, Tex., who was killed during the assault on Fallujah. His mother, Janet," Bush continued, "sent me a letter and told me . . . how proud he was to be on the front line against terror. She wrote,
‘. . . He just hugged me and said: You’ve done your job, Mom. Now it’s my turn to protect you.’" With that, Bush said, "Ladies and gentlemen, with grateful hearts, we honor freedom’s defenders, and our military families represented here this evening by Sgt. Norwood’s mom and dad, Janet and Bill Norwood." (Ibid)
Mr. and Mrs. Norwood stood to enthusiastic and sustained applause. The applause became thunderous when Sofia Taleb al-Suhail reached over and hugged
Mrs. Norwood. The proximity of the two being seated directly above and below each other created Sofia Taleb’s unique opportunity to publicly hug and "thank" a grieving American mother "who paid the cost" along with her dead Marine son and his father.
The Boston Globe reported that "Sofia Taleb al-Suhail . . . seated in Laura Bush’s box . . . hugged the mother of a slain US Marine who clutched her late son’s dog tags, punctuating the close of Bush’s speech with an emotional and apparently spontaneous embrace." (Feb. 3, 2005)
Much was made of that hug by the ABC television network’s commentators. Cokie Roberts said, "The Iraqi woman turning around and completely, spontaneously hugging the mother of the marine. It was such a moment. And it really, in a lot of ways, it spoke of what the president is trying to say: that the Iraqi people want us there and that we have liberated them." Roberts continued, "And to have that just completely spontaneous . . . something [that] gives us goosebumps, and I think will have more resonance than any words he said." (Transcript) An accommodating corporate and state-controlled mainstream media at work.
Cokie Roberts evidently knows little of "the assault on Fallujah," where Sergeant Norwood was killed, or she would not have allowed that hug to make her gush with, "The people of Iraq want us there . . . and we have liberated them." "The assault on Fallujah" was an atrocity: the US military dropped 2000 pound bombs on the homes of civilians, attacking them also with air-to-surface missiles, cluster bombs, deadly bursts of tank fire, and UN-banned napalm. This city of approximately 300,000 Iraqi civilians was literally wasted, with countless families crushed under the rubble of their roofs. Those fleeing were forced back into the attack zone by US soldiers. ("The siege of Fallujah: America on a killing spree," by Bill Van Auken, Nov. 18, 2004, wsws.org; "Fallujah Napalmed," by Paul Gilfeather, Political Editor, Nov. 28, 2004, SundayMirror.co.uk)
Numerous eyewitness horror stories of the siege of Fallujah produce a different kind of "goosebumps": children and women being shot in their homes and on sight in the streets. Anything that moved was an "insurgent" and fair game. The attacks also against medical facilities and staff and patients and ambulances-all in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Tens of thousands made refugees. ("Human Rights Day 2004: Women’s Organization Accuses U.S. of War Crimes in Iraq," Dec. 10, 2004, commondreams.org; "US Military Obstructing Medical Care in Iraq," by Dahr Jamail, Dec. 14, 2004, antiwar.com; "Stories from Fallujah," by Dahr Jamail, Feb. 9, 2005, zmag.org). But Cokie Roberts and many of her "embedded" media colleagues probably remain oblivious to "the assault on Fallujah" because it would expose the obscenity of the Bush administration behind the hug. "The voice of freedom" in Fallujah cannot be heard because of a US military blackout.
The deeply moving embrace of two emotionally involved women helped to hide and smother the reality on the ground. Saddam Hussein had no "mushroom cloud,"-threatening weapons of mass destruction and no ties to Al Qaeda and the 9/11 attack against America. Those knowingly false premises to justify invading Iraq were later contradicted by the reality on the ground. Thus the rhetoric changed to the lofty motive of removing a brutal dictator from power and bringing "freedom" to the oppressed Iraqi people.
The rhetoric ignored the reality on the ground. As the Bush administration was laying the rhetorical groundwork for war by demonizing Saddam Hussein, Robert Fisk wrote a column in The Independent called "what the U.S. President wants us to forget." Fisk stated, "In 1988, as Saddam Hussein destroyed the people of Halabja with gas, along with tens of thousands of other Kurds . . . President Bush senior provided him with $500m in U.S. government subsidies to buy American farm products. . . We must forget," Fisk continued, "that the following year, after Saddam’s genocide was complete, President Bush senior doubled this subsidy to $1bn, along with germ seed for anthrax, helicopters, and the notorious ‘dual-use’ material that could be used for chemical and biological weapons." (Oct. 9, 2002)
As the Bush administration was paving the pathway to war with "good intentions," a front-page New York Times story reported that during the 1981-88 Iraqi-Iranian war, U.S. intelligence agencies provided Iraq with satellite photographs of the positions of Iranian forces, aware that Iraqi commanders would use chemical weapons in the decisive battles of the war. The story said, "The United States decided it was imperative that Iran be thwarted so it could not overrun the important oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf." (Aug. 18, 2002)
America’s "aiding and abetting" of Saddam Hussein’s atrocities against Iraqi Kurds and the Iranians is detailed in a current Boston Globe guest column piece by Kevin McKiernan. Having studied the Kurds and covered the war in Iraq for ABC News, McKiernan not only substantiates the reporting of Robert Fisk and the New York Times, he digs even deeper into the reality on the ground: "When Hussein and his henchmen finally appear in an Iraqi courtroom to answer for their war crimes," he writes, "the Halabja massacre will be Exhibit A for the prosecution. . . . The question," McKiernan continues, "is whether the long-awaited trials will also expose key American and European officials who played a role in arming the Iraqi regime with industrial insecticides and a variety of other deadly components that the West knew were being used against the Kurds. . . . It appears," McKiernan says, "that Iraq’s use of weapons of mass destruction was known at the highest levels in Washington."
McKiernan reminds us of what President Bush junior evidently needed to forget about his father’s administration in the run-up to his own war of choice. "Some of the broad outlines of Hussein’s US support are known," McKiernan states: "the courting of the Iraqi regime by the Reagan-Bush administration in the early 1980’s as a foil against the Islamic Republic of Iran; Reagan’s handwritten letter to Saddam Hussein soliciting better relations; multiple visits by special White House envoy Donald Rumsfeld, who also represented the Bechtel corporate efforts to build an oil pipeline across Iraq; the administration’s decision to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein-who was known in these days as the ‘Butcher of Baghdad’-from the list of sponsors of terror. . ." (Feb. 9, 2005)
During the run-up to the Bush administration’s falsely-based and costly pre-emptive war, we actually read little in mainstream media of our own government’s complicity in Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule. Instead, these media mostly "aided and abetted" the Bush administration’s interpretation of the reality on the ground.
Typical of Boston Globe editorials were: "In reality, Saddam already has large quantities of chemical and biological weapons" (Mar. 15, 2002); "mass murderers," like
Saddam Hussein, "have many collaborators," such as Arab leaders if they "keep their shameful silence about Saddam’s genocidal regime" (Mar. 25, 2002); "if U.S. action in coming months leads to Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, there will be jubilation in Iraq that the monster who murdered and tortured so many people and ruined the life of entire generations is finally gone." (Oct. 21, 2002) Boston Globe editorials "kept their shameful silence" about the U.S. government being one of the "collaborators" of "Saddam’s genocidal regime."
Lip service is required for discrimination and domination to flourish in a democracy. In his Inaugural speech, President Bush touched all of the bases of America’s diversity: "In America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character . . . on integrity and tolerance toward others . . . That edifice of character is. . . sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the word of the Koran and the varied faiths of our people." (The New York Times, Jan. 21, 2005)
The reality on the ground is that President Bush won re-election by cultivating an evangelical Christian base that is not about respecting "the varied faiths of our people," but about imposing their one true faith in Christ-and biblically-based "moral values"-on other people. Bush did not appeal for tolerance, understanding and love of one’s neighbor as oneself, but to people’s fears and phobias and hatred of those who are different. He fanned the homophobic vote and the pro-heterosexual life vote and the so-called "war on terror" vote. The very nature of evangelical Christians’ assumed superior belief prevents them from acknowledging "the truths of Sinai" and "the words of the Koran."
As missionaries past followed in the wake of conquering armies, the reality on the ground will apparently see fundamentalist Christians attempting to evangelize "false-God" believing Muslims in "the dark corners" of "the Arab world." Their own salvation demands it, depends on it. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians especially are driven by the belief that Jesus is "the true light" that "shines in the darkness" and "enlightens every man." (John 1:1-14) Their insecurity and related need for certitude drives them to possess the one true superior belief, which automatically prevents them from recognizing "the truths" of differing Christian beliefs-let alone "the truths of . . . the varied faiths of our people."
President Bush’s "larger vision of bringing [italics added] democracy to the Arab world"-by pre-emptive war and threat of military force-is breeding a growing intolerance toward Arab and Muslim Americans. He says the obvious for public consumption: "American’s ideal of freedom . . . depends on integrity and tolerance toward others." ("The Inaugural Address," The New York Times, Jan. 21, 2005) But his lumping of God and country and military aggression and threat together in a providential and patriotic mission of spreading freedom to "the darkest corners of our world," blessed and colored by his own underlying unspoken "Christocentric" belief, is eliciting nationalistic and sectarian feelings of superiority-and related fear, hatred and intolerance of those from "the darkest corners of our world."
Arab and Muslim professors, businesses and community leaders are regularly attacked by right wing media organizations such as Fox News, groups like Campus Watch, and reactionary websites. In Boston, those attacks are increasing. For example, Professor M. Shahid Alam, a well-respected teacher at Northeastern University for 16 years, is a most recent target. In late December, he and the University began receiving numerous e-mails calling for his firing, threatening to withhold donations, and some containing death threats against him and his family. Why? Because Professor Alam exercised his right of free speech.
In December and January, Counterpunch published two articles written by Professor Alam: "America and Islam: Seeking Parallels" (Dec. 29, 2004) and "Testing Free Speech in America" (Jan. 1/2, 2005) His evidently unpardonable critique of America’s rhetoric and the reality on the ground included this penetrating statement:
"Americans have been trained to see only their greatness, not the human costs that others have been made to pay, and continue to pay, for their successes." (Jan. 1/2, 2005)
Sadly, the 9/11 atrocities committed against America elicited knee-jerk patriotism rather than national soul searching. Instead of self-examination about our country’s foreign policy and whether it may have contributed to such violent aggression, our president, who himself cannot admit mistakes, declared a global "war on terror," and in a September 22, 2001 radio address said, "I want to remind the people of America, we’re still the greatest nation on the face of the Earth, and no terrorist will ever be able to decide our fate." With "God" on his side and "freedom" in his heart, his administration is turning America into a super nation similar to Hitler’s super race with its fascist ideology of superiority. Professor Alam’s articles reveal a truth that Americans need to hear: global justice and peace depend on us experiencing other people’s reality on the ground not interpreting it with unreflective patriotism.
The Northeastern professor reveals something of the reality on the ground in saying, "For three years now, ever since I entered the public discourse, various organized right-wing groups have been trying to silence me with threats. Unless more Americans become aware of the growing erosion of free speech, I am afraid that our voices may be silenced." (personal communication, Feb. 8, 2005) One way to continue hearing Professor Alam’s voice is to write a letter supporting his academic freedom to Northeastern University President, Richard Freeland (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The issue of "tolerance" toward "the truths" of others extends beyond "the varied faiths of our people." President Bush began his second term in office promising healing but exploiting division. His inaugural rhetoric was lofty: "And our country must abandon all the habits of racism, because we cannot carry the message of freedom and the baggage of bigotry at the same time." Bush himself carries both quite well.
Five days after the Inauguration, the reality on the ground saw the President open his "baggage of bigotry" at a meeting with a group of 24 African American religious and community leaders. Bush reportedly "told black leaders yesterday that his plan to add private accounts to Social Security would benefit blacks because they tend to have shorter lives than some other Americans and end up paying more than they get out." (The Boston Globe, Jan. 26, 2005)
Why Black people do not live as long as White people evidently was not discussed. What an apparently glaring commentary on all who were present at that meeting.
Why do White persons live longer than Black persons? There remains in America an historic, institutionalized White-controlled hierarchy of access to political and economic power, with George W. Bush as its CEO. This hierarchy has enabled White persons to sow far more educational and economic opportunities than people of color-and thus reap far greater health and healthcare-and longer life.
At the heart of America’s "lingering racial divide" is a job gap that creates a health gap. Black people especially continue to reap an unhealthy, discriminatory,
White-favored political and economic order sown for them at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. Those who suffer from lack of adequate paying jobs, insufficient diet, polluted air, an indifferent and often hostile environment, and a tokenistic power structure are more likely to reap hypertension, anxiety, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney failure, asthma, stroke, cancer, heart disease, mental illness, HIV/AIDS, implosive physical violence, and lower life expectancy. ("Patients With H.I.V. Seen as Separated by a Racial Divide," The New York Times. Aug. 7, 2004; "Disparities found in health care for blacks," The Boston Globe, Aug. 5, 2004; "Report finds minorities get poorer healthcare," by Ron Blakely, Mar. 20, 2002, 222.cnn.com; "Mental Health Problems Among Minorities," by Richard A. Sherer, www.healthy places.com.)
President Bush’s own "soft bigotry of low expectations" [italics added] is obviously at work here. At the moment, his administration’s "baggage of bigotry" is carrying over a $300 billion price tag and counting for his administration’s "wars on terrorism" at the expense of adequate healthcare for some 43 million Black and White persons alike. Wars being fought by a disproportionate number of Black Americans because the Army is actually the only place they can "be all you can be."
The meeting between President Bush and these selective Black leaders evidently was not about an inequitable, life-shortening, White-favored hierarchical structure over which President Bush presides, but how to get from him a little piece of the pie. "Many people at the meeting with Bush yesterday were the president’s political supporters," it was reported. They stated, "Bush promised more trade with Africa and support for home and business ownership by blacks." And his supporters were said to have "praised Bush for opening federal dollars to churches and religious organizations and encouraged him to push for a constitutional ban on gay marriage." (The Boston Globe, Jan. 26, 2005) There is a similarity between paying off columnists to write stories favoring Bush administration policies and buying loyalty with faith-based initiatives.
A divisive dynamic is assumed to be at work here. Black leaders who accommodate the racial hierarchy are rewarded with acceptance, recognition, advancement and support for their causes. Here are White-approved Black leaders. The
dynamic is believed to be "Black Gloves/White Hands." Those Black leaders-and organizations– who "get out of hand" and challenge the inequities of the racial order are ignored, portrayed as controversial and, if they become too powerful, run the risk of being discredited and marginalized-even editorially lynched. White-approved Black leaders make excellent spokespersons-and camouflage-for the racial hierarchy-even when they are not speaking.
The Bush administration is assumed to use rhetoric to disguise rather than disclose reality. The administration has perfected the art of doing "evil" and calling it "good." "Liberation" actually means occupation. "Operation Iraqi Freedom" means creating a puppet regime to exploit Iraq’s vast energy resources, and use its strategic location to militarily fan "this untamed fire of freedom [to] the darkest corners of our world." Bringing "democracy to the Arab world" is about domination. "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world"? (The Inaugural
Address," The New York Times, Jan. 21, 2005) Translation: that is the best hope for all the Bill and Janet Norwoods of our country to offer up their sons and daughters for the expansion of American imperialism. When President Bush says, "My job is to protect
the American people from the terrorists," he really means his aim is to provoke fear of the "terrorists" in the American people so that he can keep his job.
One of President Bush’s repeated fear-mongering statements is, "Our men and women in uniform are fighting terrorists in Iraq, so we do not have to fight them here at home." ("State of the Union Address," The New York Times, Feb. 3, 2005) Will "our men and women in uniform [be] fighting terrorists in" Iran next, "so we do not have to fight them here at home"? The "terrorists" in North Korea? In Syria? In Libya? How many "terrorists" around the world will "our men and women in uniform [be] fighting" until they "have to fight them here at home"? It is not about "fighting terrorists in Iraq, so we don’t have to fight them here at home," but about a brutalizing war of choice that has created enemies in Iraq and beyond who may well have to be fought here at home.
The reality on the ground is seen in a global poll showing "anti-Bush feelings." Conducted by the British Broadcasting Company, the poll found that "a majority of people [58% of 122,000] surveyed . . . think that the re-election of George W. Bush as US president has made the world more dangerous; and many view Americans negatively as well." The survey revealed that "residents in only three countries . . . out of 21 polled thought the world was safer following Bush’s election. And 47% of those questioned now see US influence in the world as largely negative." (The Boston Globe, Jan. 20, 2005)
As if in denial of the divisions he has sown on the ground in America and globally, President Bush began his second term with, "We have known divisions which must be healed to move forward in great purposes, and I will strive in good faith to heal them." ("The Inaugural Address," The New York Times, Jan. 21, 2005). Words have no real meaning to Bush. They come easy and often to deny, distort and do violence to reality.
President Bush "will strive in good faith to heal [our] divisions"? "Physician, heal thyself." (Luke 4:23) Since Bush prides himself on being a president of prayer and piety, religious leaders seem to be especially suited to speak truth to power: about Bush understanding and overcoming his and America’s own "evil," so that the humanness and good in so-called "terrorists" may be seen and revered not demonized and destroyed. Any steeple worth its salt points downward to the reality of all people on the ground. "The best hope for peace in our world" is experiencing other people’s reality, not burning beyond recognition their grievances and aspirations in an "untamed fire of freedom reach[ing] the darkest corners of our world."
Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS, Ph.D. is a hospital chaplain. Both a Unitarian Universalist and a United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics and religion. He can be reached at email@example.com.