HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

September 24, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Capital’s Freedom

I broke out of my no-news cocoon this morning by driving down to the crossroads store at Rosedale and buying a copy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And what was the biggest headline? “U.S. Firm Kicked Out By Iraqis.” Ah! here’s Blackwater I thought.

Sure enough, the article reported that the Blackwater USA security firm had been ordered by the Iraqi government to suspend operations in their country. The reason given was that Blackwater employees continue to kill Iraqi citizens and there is never any accountability for these deaths.

This is a strike at the kind of freedom President Bush habitually extols -- the freedom to make money off any kind of activity that will generate a profit. A goodly number of the American officials in Iraq evidently cannot be protected by either the U.S. military or the Iraqi police.  So they hire private security guards, who take it as their right to kill anybody who looks like he, or she, might pose a threat to their clients. And there aren’t supposed to be any questions asked. This is capitalism in its purest form -- the license to make money completely free of any government restrictions. I guess this is what we theoretically defeated communism for.

It remains to be seen whether the Iraqi government -- which is scarcely a government at all -- can actually ban a powerful American corporation from its country. My suspicion is that it can’t. The whole business will be papered over by a promise to investigate the actions of the security contractors, and then the scrutiny will drift away into that cloudy realm of promised responsibility which always manages to fade to nothing in Iraq. It will be simply one more incident in the farcical contention that the United States considers Iraq to be a sovereign nation.


Transmogrified

What has happened to former Mr. Hardnosed Republican Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia? He appears to have become -- almost -- a civil libertarian. In a column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he denounces the use of police to enforce so-called “quality of life” issues, such as insuring that junior high school boys don’t tease girls by slapping their bottoms. Teachers used to take care of such juvenile pranks but now in many precincts they have become a matter of law and order. The suburban counties of Gwinett and Cobb in Georgia actually have “Quality of Life Units” staffed by armed police officers. Barr views that as going over the top.

Furthermore, Barr has committed the un-Republican act of comparing American cities unfavorably with urban areas in other countries. Geneva, Bern, and Zurich, for example, exhibit better behavior than any U. S. city does. And they don’t require big police departments to accomplish it. They rely, says Barr, on political systems which encourage strong education and active civic participation.

If even Bob Barr is worried about the intrusion of official armed force into society then perhaps the rest of us should start asking ourselves how much policed propriety we want  in our everyday associations.  The finest quality of social life occurs when there’s no occasion even to think about policemen, not when there’s a cop on every corner to tell us how to behave.


Now and Then

Time is probably the most incomprehensible of human experiences. We mask that truth from ourselves by concentrating on tiny increments -- day by day, week by week. Thus we fail to grasp the cataclysmic effect of multiple decades. But when you spend several days in an area you knew intimately as a child, you can’t avoid being mesmerized by what the passage of years has done to it.

Probably the most striking transformation in the region just north of Rome, Georgia has to do with remoteness. Armuchee, Floyd Springs, used to be way out. They presented themselves to the eyes of a ten year old boy as being dark and mysterious -- maybe not quite primitive but pretty close. When I first came here, none of the houses I visited had electricity or indoor plumbing, and just those two differences from life in Atlanta were mind boggling.

Now the same area is almost suburban, a place where people move to get enough land for large, expensive houses. Driving here from Rome is no longer a journey into the wilderness but simply a commute, and not a very long one at that.

It’s loss and gain, and none of us possesses fine enough calculations to tell which is greater. And when you consider that the change which has been bearing on my mind for the past week is, in the context of world transformation over centuries, not particularly dramatic, your sense of history becomes pure wonder and confusion.

What this area will be fifty or sixty years from now is impossible to imagine. It will depend on the currents of history. I wonder if anybody then will be able to capture -- through records and imagination -- what and how it was when I first came here. I hope so, because there were stories being made then that are worth remembering.


It’s Not Our Fault

If the remarks by residents of Jena, Louisiana, reported in the newspapers can be taken as representative of local sentiment, the people there believe they have no responsibility whatsoever for the behavior of their police officials. “We’re not a bad town, we’re not racists,” they say repeatedly. Fine. But if not why haven’t they protested the actions of the police against several black teenagers who got into fights with white teenagers over racial taunts. One of the black kids was initially charged with attempted murder, which was obviously ridiculous. Isn’t a nasty incident of this sort something schools and parents ought to resolve by having parents and teachers come together and set up methods for seeing that their adolescents behave themselves better?

That’s what would happen in a genuine democracy. But the sad truth is that many residents of America don’t view themselves as having a part in maintaining peace and decent behavior in their communities. They wail that they’re not bad, and that they’re seen unfairly by outsiders. But if their police go over the top, they sit silently and do nothing.

Either most of the citizens of Jena secretly are racists and applaud the racist behavior of their police, or they feel so divorced from what any officials do that they can’t conceive of having any connection with it. Either is a sad comment on much of American society right now.


Blackwater

Here's my prediction: the Blackwater scandal will grow and continue to spin out negative publicity for the remainder of the Bush administration. The reason is that Blackwater's situation in Iraq is representative of the entire American incursion into that benighted country. And it cannot be resolved until the U.S. occupation is over.

Think of it. A foreign corporation claims the right to kill people in a country and not be held accountable for the deaths by the officials of that country. If it does, indeed have that authority, then the idea that the country is a sovereignty is nonsense. Furthermore, the nation that actually exercises sovereignty in the country wants merely to look the other way and not be bothered. And, then, the occupying nation that doesn't want to be bothered also says it wants the occupied country to develop a responsible, unified government. The occupying nation can't use its own forces to protect its officials in the country, because they are incapable of doing it. So mercenaries have to hired and paid extravagant fees.

No more effective conditions for corruption, mayhem, and pure viciousness can be imagined. There is no possibility for stability when people are behaving in this way.

The people of the United States have not yet figured out what complete foulness their government has created in Iraq. But they are learning more about it everyday. And the Blackwater story will help them learn more. That's why it will stay in the news, and why it will remain permanently as a black mark in U.S. history.


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