Je Suis Charlie (Mais Non Est Obama)

 

What is wrong with Barack Obama?  On January 11 1.6 million people, including more than forty presidents and prime ministers, gathered in the Place de la République in Paris for a show of solidarity against Islamic terrorism.  But unless you recognized the face of the American ambassador in Paris you would search in vain for a representative of the United States among the heads of state marching with linked arms.  The American Attorney General happened to be in France, but did not attend the rally.

Surely the American President, the leader of the global anti-terror war, had no business more important (a fund raiser?) than showing his face in Paris.  The White House then added another insult by bringing up concerns about the President’s safety (though the Secret Service was never consulted), suggesting that the French security forces are inept, an opinion apparently not shared by the leaders who did show up.  Since the President may presumably ignore the concerns of his advisors, Obama ends up looking a bit like a coward or an aloof jerk, especially since the very first national leader to hurry to the US after 9/11 was Jacques Chirac, the President of France.

Je suis Barack

Je suis Barack

One leader who did show up, apparently against the wishes of the French President, Francois Hollande, was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, prompting Hollande to immediately invite Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority.  Netanyahu proceeded to make a fool of himself, waving to the crowd, unlike the others in the somber march, and inviting French Jews to emigrate to Israel, where they would be safe, a completely outrageous statement for a guest of the French to make.  Of course, the presence of people like Vladimir Putin and the representative of Saudia Arabia was a study in hypocrisy as they memorialized the Charlie Hebdo journalists, all of whom would be in prison in their countries.

Slaughtering innocents, especially children, is certainly barbaric, but the assault on the writers and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo was a blow against what I believe to be the most important of our rights, that of free expression.  If one cannot say what one pleases, short of creating an immediate physical danger, all other political freedoms become meaningless.  Limiting free speech because someone, be it an individual or an entire group of people, may be offended is tantamount to eliminating free speech.  Freedom of expression comes with a sometimes onerous responsibility: tolerating the offensive or inane speech of others.  “Hate” speech and certainly stupid speech are unfortunately facets of free speech.

Islamic extremism, at least when it targets what it considers offensive expression, might be considered a sort of political correctness gone wild.  Instead of facing censure or job loss because of criticism of some group, you now face death threats and violence.  There are well meaning-people who believe that if we do not insult these individuals by criticizing or lampooning their bizarre and brutal interpretation of Islam, they will not be moved to such barbarous behavior, a ludicrous idea.  And there are far less well-meaning people (see for example the official Turkish press), who suggest this sort of violence is happening because of excessive free speech, implying that the victims at Charlie Hebdo deserved what they got.  Well, all governments (and university administrations) are uncomfortable to some degree with real free speech, and it is a never ending struggle to secure our right to say what we will.

Free speech aside, these jihadi scum are reminiscent of a violent group that has actually contributed a common noun to the English language – the Thuggees or Thugs.  The Thugs were a criminal/religious association plaguing India since at least the fourteenth century, until they were virtually eliminated by the British in the nineteenth.  The Thugs originally traced their roots back to seven Muslim tribes, but their theology was Hindu during their reign of terror.  They were essentially a criminal underclass, specializing in strangling and robbing travelers, but they believed themselves (Muslims notwithstanding) to be the children of the violent goddess Kali, consort of Shiva, thus providing a kind of religious justification for their murderous activities.  The Thugs were at root thieves, but they inevitably murdered their victims, making them something more than just another robber band.  Estimates vary wildly, but the Thugs may have killed as many as two million people during their centuries of terror.

Kali, unofficial deity of Isis

Kali, unofficial deity of Isis

Thugs

Thugs

And what to do about the wave of Muslim fanaticism that is rolling around the planet?  I wish I knew.  These deluded jihadists are like the Terminator: they can’t be reasoned with, they can’t be bought off and they can’t be intimidated.  The British were able to turn many Thugs by sparing them the death penalty, but how can one do this with someone who believes that getting blown up is a good thing?

Killing them is the only immediate answer, but without an effective army actually engaging ISIS in Syria and Iraq this will be a long and difficult process.  Cutting off the supply of new recruits means improving living conditions, including education, for young Muslim men, a tough enough challenge in Europe, especially France, where there is a rising tide of Islamaphobia, and perhaps impossible in the Middle East.  Of course, droning innocents in Pakistan and Yemen is not helping the cause, although the ISIS fanatics would likely still be trying to build their caliphate even if the West had no history of colonialism in the Middle East and no war on terror.

Perhaps western leaders need to begin thinking outside the box.  Declare that Syria is a province of the Israeli empire and let them take care of the situation.  Or make it clear to the jihadists that if captured they will be put in stocks and pelted with pork and forced to listen to historians and theologians explaining Islam to them.  Or send in attorneys and administrators to help ISIS construct a true bureaucratic state, in the wake of which they will be unable to get anything done.  Just saying. enhanced-30843-1420643123-9[1]enhanced-15505-1420644639-7[1]

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Ich hab’ noch eine Botschaft in Berlin…

(There is nothing interesting or perhaps even sensible I can say about Gaza.  Meanwhile, I must mention that another boon companion, George the cat, has now followed his friends Alfred and Lucy on that final journey.  This is getting harder and harder)

George 2000-2014

George
2000-2014

 

While in Berlin in May, I had the opportunity to visit the American embassy, a metaphorical and literal bastion of American power.  I do not normally go out of my way to visit American governmental establishments and submit myself to the scrutiny of humorless and self-important functionaries, but I wanted to visit that part of Berlin and was naturally curious about our diplomatic fortresses in the age of terror.  The trip was one of the excursions scheduled by our (and Stanford’s) man in Berlin, who had frequent dealings with the embassy.  I was consequently restrained in my comments in the embassy.

 

The embassy is about as centrally located as one can be in Berlin.  It sits immediately to the south of the Brandenburg Gate on the corner of Behrenstraße and Ebertstraße, about 300 meters from where Hitler died in the bunker and more importantly, about 400 meters from the Bundestag (former Reichstag), the German federal parliament.  Since the Berlin government defiantly refused to allow the Americans to block off streets in the center of their city the embassy is hardly aesthetically pleasing, inasmuch as it had to be built as a fortress to satisfy America’s growing paranoia.  Surrounding the compound is a ring of low concrete pillars, designed presumably to stop any car bombs.

Rear of the Festung

Rear of the Festung

Festung Amerika

Festung Amerika

 

Entering by the south door, we – a collection of former Stanford students in their late 60s – of course had to go through American airport type security in order to reach a conference room that was undoubtedly the only place accessible to guests in that part of the building.  Naturally, this was all a very serious process, as the possible terrorists were grudgingly admitted to their own embassy.  The paranoia, incidentally, extends to the office of the ambassador himself: his own personal staff members are required to leave everything outside when they enter.  By way of contrast, I have heard that security at the Russian embassy is incredibly slack.  Now, that is a fine irony.

Vlad's place

Vlad’s place

 

To my immense surprise John Emerson, the ambassador for the last year, popped in to chat for a while.  I never thought I would actually meet an American diplomat, not that they would have anything interesting to say unless they were career State Department people.  Perhaps he had the time for us because we were Stanford graduates and thus opinion makers in our communities.  More likely it was because no one besides the British diplomatic staff would talk to him because of the NSA snooping.  My first thought was to ask him how much money he raised for Obamas in order to get the job, but I did not what to injure our friend’s relationship with the embassy.  I later learned that he did indeed raise several million for the President’s campaign, hardly surprising since that is how most ambassadorships are handed out.  All the Russian ambassadors in Europe are career diplomats and speak the local language.  But he did seem to know a little about Germany.

With our President

With our President

 

He left after a short while, probably to go get slapped around by an obviously annoyed German Chancellor, and his place was taken by an expert on Eastern Europe, doubtless chosen because of her ability to deftly sidestep embarrassing questions.  Right off I asked her if staff who talked to visitors received political instruction, and she of course answered that they did not and all had their own opinions but of course had to be on the same channel (or some such metaphor).  In her answers to our questions she then proceeded to spew the exact party line of the administration and artfully dodge questions that could not be honestly answered without departing from that line.  Since the NSA was in the air (literally) she dished out the standard fare on the subject:  Snowden of course needs to be brought to justice for his crimes and god knows what he is telling the Russians (Why else would he be there?), but it is good to have an open dialogue on the subject.  As usual no mention was made of the fact that without Snowden there would be absolute no dialogue and no knowledge of what the spooks were doing, and perhaps he was in Russia because it is one of the few places he could not be kidnapped by the CIA.

 

And all the while, equipment on the embassy roof was monitoring the conversations and electronic traffic of the nearby German government.  It was all I could do to refrain from loudly voicing my indignation and opinion of her and the government she represented.  An obscene gesture directed at the embassy from the sidewalk was the only protest I could make.

The author salutes his country

The author salutes his country

 

When I was in Berlin 50 years ago, I was actually proud to be an American.