Illustration by Bob AulOne day while smoking Osama bin Laden out of his hole, I chanced to bite him on the leg. "Hmm, kinda smoky tasting," I thought, but the even stronger impression was "This is the most unsavory leg I have ever bitten. Yerch!"
The word from the Bush White House is that we must deal with unsavory characters from time to time to keep our country safe. But how unsavory must they be? When considering the list of the worst bogeymen who have troubled our sleep over the years—bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, et al.—the common denominator was that all had been in bed with the U.S. intelligence community. Hell, even Lee Harvey Oswald swapped saliva with the CIA.
Just recently on a CNN Town Meeting, Senator John Edwards (D-North Carolina) gave a splendid non-answer to a college kid who asked how the U.S. hoped to stop violence when we're the world's largest arms supplier and continually associate with bin Laden's ilk. Ignoring the bulk of the question, Edwards explained away our past with Mr. Unsavory Leg by saying that he was just the sort of "dark side" character the president was saying we'd needed to infiltrate these terrorist organizations.
This missed the point that our Dana Rohrabacher-inspired operatives didn't recruit bin Laden to infiltrate terrorists but to be one, albeit a "good" terrorist trained and equipped to blow up the Russians occupying Afghanistan. You know how there were good witches and bad witches in The Wizard of Oz? Bin Laden was a good witch, but now he's a bad witch, with winged monkeys all over the place with box knives and crop-dusters, and we gotta drop a house on him but fast.
Later, whilst draining the swamps that terrorists hide in, I began to wonder about Orwell's 1984 and how its leaders' pronouncements of "We are at war with Oceania. We have always been at war with Oceania" would change to "We are at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia" whenever it was convenient for keeping the populace benumbed.
While we are a long way from 1984—like 17 years—it does ring a certain bell when we are now working with the former head of the Soviet KGB to rout the Afghan terrorists whom we formerly—like, hey, 17 years ago—dubbed freedom fighters and trained to rout the "evil empire" of Russia.
Meanwhile we're forming alliances with Iran, our sworn enemy in the 1980s; not that it kept our government then from secretly sending them arms and using the proceeds to secretly arm "freedom fighter" terrorists in Central America; not that we didn't also send arms to our staunch friend Saddam Hussein, then fighting Iran; not that we didn't later go to war with our dastardly enemy Saddam Hussein so that we might reinstall the Kuwaiti monarchy to their rightful seat of oil-soaked power; and not that we, who overthrew the tyranny of monarchy in our own country 225 years ago, aren't now weighing the option of bringing back Afghanistan's former king, with the help of our friends in the corrupt Saudi monarchy.
Add to the list of our unsavory allies all the shahs and potentates and oligarchs and generalissimos and "presidents for life" whose terrorist acts have only been directed against their own people. Saddam Hussein is, again, a handy example: when he was merely nerve-gassing his own Kurdish population, our government said nary a hiccup against him as he suckled at our tax-sore teat; it was only when his brutality turned against our oil interests that our leaders drummed up indignation for the monster who killed his own.
If I were a CIA operative, I could see where it might keep the job interesting to have a competition to see who could recruit the most brutish son of a bitch into our fold. Someone should get some fun out of it because neither we at home nor the people in other lands have seen any good from it. Maybe in the expedient moment, or for a few oil men or defense contractors, but anything that works against freedom and human dignity works against our own best interest. Could we agree, just maybe, that these are precisely the sort of "entangling alliances" that our founding fathers warned us against?
Look, goddamn it, at these tyrants our representatives embrace two centuries after our bold republic was founded, and tell me George Washington wouldn't vomit his teeth out or Thomas Paine start the revolution anew.
It's popular now to be cynical about our founding fathers' intentions, but screw that. Sometimes in human history, courage and our better natures do win the day. There was not a more precarious, vulnerable nation in the world than the newborn United States, yet they had the mettle to assert the values that have inspired the world ever since. Now that we are the world's lone superpower, with its strongest military and economy, are you going to believe the politicians who say our freedom is such a feeble thing that we can only guard it by shacking up with every dictator and religious zealot who comes along? When those U.S.-enriched despots and zealots keep emerging as our greatest enemies a few years later, are you still going to believe them?
Look, this whole topic isn't fun for me: I quoted Jesus verbatim a few weeks ago and was paid back in mail calling me anti-Christian; I cite the principles this nation was founded on and get called unpatriotic. I would far rather go back to writing my usual columns full of mirth and sexual innuendo. But it shouldn't be this hard to be understood, so I'll make one more attempt here.
Terrorists are bad. The surviving ones responsible for attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon deserve whatever grief we can lob at them. I hate to disagree with Bill Maher, but the hijackers were the worst sort of cowards, too afraid to question their own bullshit dogma to realize they had no right sacrificing anybody's lives but their own.
They are guilty of heinous, inexcusable crimes against humanity, and it will not subtract from their guilt if Americans do some soul-searching at this crucial juncture and admit that it is hypocritical for us to talk of waging a crusade against terrorism without owning up to the terrorism we've abetted in the world. One man's "freedom fighter" is another man's terrorist, which should be only too clear now that bin Laden has been both to us. To face such truths doesn't mean you're unpatriotic, or that you're practicing "moral relativism," or that you don't love your country. It means that you care. If you can figure out a way to have freedom without truth, you let me know.
It is never, ever in our best interest to support corrupt, undemocratic governments that suppress, torture and kill their own people. That was an obvious truth 225 years ago in Philadelphia, and it is all the more true today. That applies to the Taliban, but also to Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, et al.—and to the "drug war" we're backing in Colombia, where we're supporting a repressive military allied (according to Human Rights Watch) with the death squads who are murdering nuns, human rights activists and workers.
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That cannot be reconciled with Bush's bombing-announcement speech this week, in which he said, "If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and killers themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril."
Such hypocrisy is wrong not only because it is, well, wrong, but also because of this iron-clad law: when we don't live up to our ideals, it comes back to haunt us. It may have benefited our arms manufacturers for the United States to be the lone holdout on a global treaty banning land mines. It will seem like less of a good decision if we send ground troops into Afghanistan, where some 6 million armed mines still litter the country from their last war, killing 10 or more civilians per day.
I've been flying a flag since Sept. 11. It is my flag, not just the flag of all the blotto, pump-action patriots driving around frightening elderly Iranians. I grew up loving the flag and its Superman-era message of "truth, justice and the American way." I still believe freedom, truth and justice are sufficiently powerful forces that we should stand by them and not sell them out while cynically sidling up to every unsavory satrap and murderous dictator out there and then acting surprised when the asps turn and bite us.
When they do bite us, do you suppose that we might taste unsavory to them?