Morning Report 8/7/05
Vincent Loses His War of Words
Defending an unjust war, a brave journalist is murdered in Iraq
Swashbuckling New York City journalist Steven Vincent insisted that "occupation" was the wrong word to describe what we're doing in Iraq. And that's what made this frontlines blogger the darling of right-wingers at the National Review and elsewhere.
You have to admire Vincent's courage and mourn his death. But before he's canonized, read the compelling profile of Vincent in this morning's Sunday Times (U.K.).
There's no doubt that at least big parts of Iraq are veering toward theocratic rule, and that women's rights, which flourished under the absurdly brutal—but secular—reign of Saddam Hussein, are seriously endangered. The capital city daily Baghdad reports that many women's groups have organized a sit-in at Firdaws Square, demanding that the men trying to conjure a constitution listen to them.
But in Tony Allen-Mills's absorbing account in the Sunday Times, Vincent comes across as needlessly reckless, the poor guy:
In one of his blog entries, Vincent writes of one man's angry reaction when [his translator Noor] Tuaiz, given the pseudonym Layla, took off her abaya, a long Islamic robe, and sat in a coffee shop in long-sleeved blouse and jeans.
"He's staring at us with the blank, malevolently stupid glare I've encountered so often," Vincent wrote. " 'You have a problem,' I snap . . . by now, I'm thinking, 'What would happen if I punched this guy?' " Layla defused the tension by putting her abaya back on.
Once again, Vincent's quixotic gallantry appears desperately out of touch with the realities of Shiite-controlled Iraq. Picking a fight in a public place over an unmarried Muslim woman's attire appears next to suicidal for an American journalist trying to keep a low profile.
Did he think he was Antonio Banderas walking into a Mexican saloon? Who knows. As Allen-Mills points out, Vincent thought he had a noble purpose:
In an internet blog Vincent wrote from Basra, he repeatedly railed against what he regarded as the "shackles" on Iraqi women. "It astonishes me, the ways in which Iraqi men control their women with their obsessions on 'reputation,' 'honour' and that all-purpose cudgel, 'proper Muslim behaviour,' " he wrote.
Yet in many ways the relationship sums up the dilemma facing British troops as they attempt to patch together an exit strategy for Iraq. The passionate, principled but dangerously naive American journalist wanted more than anything else for women like Tuaiz to be free of what he saw as vicious Islamic prejudice.
But, like everyone else, Vincent had his own prejudices. His vision of Iraq seemed to be that of a typical American Sun Belt developer. As the Sunday Times story relates:
Vincent believed that Basra, potentially an economic hub as Iraq's gateway to the Gulf, could become "the next Bahrain, Dubai or, for all we know, Orlando." Instead, he found that the Shiite majority in Basra had seized on the arrival of democracy as a chance to impose hardline religious values after years of suppression under Saddam Hussein.
There was no place in Basra for Disney World values, and Vincent blamed the British for turning a blind eye to the advance of corrupt religious fundamentalism.
"Fearing to appear like colonial occupiers, they avoid any hint of ideological indoctrination," he wrote. "As one British officer put it, ‘the sooner the locals assume their own security, the sooner we go home.' "
Vincent contended that we should refer to the "liberation" of Iraq, instead of "occupation." Sorry, but he was wrong. Take a look at any of former pasha Jerry Bremer's rules and regs, and you'll see that privatization was his religion, and freedom of assembly and freedom of the press were heavily restricted.
This is part of the "catastrophic success" wrought by the Bush regime's unjustified invasion of Iraq.
Paul Krugman, in his June 2004 piece "Who Lost Iraq?" pointed out Bremer's bidness fervor:
The Iraq venture may have been doomed from the start—but we'll never know for sure because the Bush administration made such a mess of the occupation. Future historians will view it as a case study of how not to run a country. … What the figures don't describe is the toxic mix of ideological obsession and cronyism that lie behind that dismal performance. …
The insurgency took root during the occupation's first few months, when the Coalition Provisional Authority seemed oddly disengaged from the problems of postwar anarchy. But what was Paul Bremer III, the head of the C.P.A., focused on? According to a Washington Post reporter who shared a flight with him last June , "Bremer discussed the need to privatize government-run factories with such fervor that his voice cut through the din of the cargo hold."
Plans for privatization were eventually put on hold.
As for "liberation," well, you can check out Bremer's rules for Iraqis yourselves. They're still posted on the Web, but not for much longer. Take this excerpt, for instance, from CPA Order No. 19, issued July 10, 2003, in a typically imperious tone:
- Determined to remove the unacceptable restrictions on human rights of the former Iraqi Baath Party regime, and to promote the freedom of the Iraqi people to demonstrate in a peaceful and orderly manner, I hereby promulgate the following:
And what does the order say? It rescinds Saddam's restrictions and replaces them with, uh, restrictions. To wit:
Suspension of Laws
The provisions of the Third Edition of the 1969 Iraqi Penal Code, Part Two, Chapter Two, at paragraphs 220 to 222 which unreasonably restrict the right to freedom of expression and the right of peaceful assembly are hereby suspended.
1) It is unlawful for any person, group or organization to conduct or participate in any march, assembly, meeting or gathering on roadways, public thoroughfares or public places in more than one specific area of or location in, any municipality on any given day, unless acting under authority of the Coalition Force Commander or a Divisional or Brigade Commander (hereinafter "Approving Authorities"). …
Bremer issued similarly rigid rules for the media. Yeah, let freedom reign.
Vincent, though, apparently saw himself as an idealist and people like Bremer as liberators. The truth is that if Vincent was so concerned about the battle for women's rights and against corrupt religious fundamentalism, he didn't have to go to Iraq to pick a fight.
He could have stayed right here in America. Religious fundamentalists like George W. Bush's personal prayer partners, Christian home-school guru Mike Farris and virulent anti-feminist James Dobson (who issues "gender guidelines" for Bible translators—see my 1997 Westword story) want women to obey the Biblical law as set down in the second chapter of Titus.
Or, as the official site of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. and a prime mobilizer for the Bush regime's election campaigns, puts it in "The Baptist Faith & Message":
The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God's image.
The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.
Orthodox Jews and orthodox Muslims have the same kind of repressive rules for women to follow.
If Vincent wanted Iraqi women to enjoy a secular life, he should have left Saddam Hussein's regime alone, right?
Life's complicated. And so is death.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.