Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 25, 2007

Antique Courage

I love old books and I (mostly) like the gentle souls who sell them. Yet an elderly, convalescent antiquarian bookseller seems an improbable hero in the war on terror. Arthur Burton-Garnett deserves a medal for giving chase to a suicide bomber who had just failed to kill him and his fellow-passengers on a London subway train.

This is one of several extraordinary stories to emerge from the trial of six men who are accused of attempting a repetition of the 7/7 London bombings two weeks later, on July 21, 2005. According to the prosecution, Ramzi Mohammed tried to detonate his bomb as the train travelled between Stockwell and Oval stations just south of the River Thames.

Mohammed is alleged to have turned so that his backpack, containing a home-made bomb, pointed towards a young mother, Nadia Baro, with her nine-month-old baby in a buggy. He then set off his device, but only the detonator exploded, sounding like a large firecracker. Most of the passengers fled to the next carriage, but Mrs. Baro was left behind. A middle-aged off-duty fireman, Angus Campbell, helped her to get away. As the train drew into Oval station, he told the driver on the intercom: “Don’t open the doors!” Even though this was only two weeks after the carnage of 7/7, the driver ignored this request, and Mohammed ran out of the train. A retired engineer, George Brawley, tried to grab him, but he broke free.

At this point, Mr. Burton-Garnett decided to give chase. Though the fugitive was a third of his age and highly dangerous, the unarmed septuagenarian bookseller was fearless. He ran up the escalator after Mohammed, shouting: “Stop that man! Get the police!” In his own words, Mr. Burton-Garnett “tore after him but he was about nine or ten stair treads ahead of me. Halfway up I sort of ran out of steam. I was just recovering from a gall-bladder operation, otherwise I think I might have been a bit faster.”

What would have happened if he had caught Mohammed probably didn’t occur to him. It is surely significant that a man of Mr. Burton-Garnett’s age and health would be so careless of his own safety. Mr. Brawley and Mr. Campbell were also older men. Younger people are much less likely to feel an obligation to intervene in such situations, having been warned by the police and brought up by their parents not to do so. They learn that the “streetwise” thing to do if they see a crime being committed is to run away. I do not wish to disparage our youth: after all, the majority of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are in their teens or twenties. And plenty of young civilians are not afraid to have a go at criminals and terrorists. But in doing so they go against the grain of an overprotective culture.

The inspiring message of the passengers on Flight 93, who prevented an even worse catastrophe on 9/11, is that a war in which the suicide bomber is a key weapon can only be won if civilians defy regulations and rely on their own initiative.

Next time I open an old book, I shall think of Mr. Burton-Garnett. He may belong in the gallery of English eccentrics, but he is a hero nevertheless. Where manliness is mocked and cowardice is institutionalized, you need to be eccentric to be brave. There is something both comic and moving about the image of an erudite gentleman, more accustomed to leafing through old folios, in hot pursuit of an alleged suicide bomber who thought nothing of killing a mother and child in cold blood.

I love old books and I (mostly) like the gentle souls who sell them. Yet an elderly, convalescent antiquarian bookseller seems an improbable hero in the war on terror. Arthur Burton-Garnett deserves a medal for giving chase to a suicide bomber who had just failed to kill him and his fellow-passengers on a London subway train.

This is one of several extraordinary stories to emerge from the trial of six men who are accused of attempting a repetition of the 7/7 London bombings two weeks later, on July 21, 2005. According to the prosecution, Ramzi Mohammed tried to detonate his bomb as the train travelled between Stockwell and Oval stations just south of the River Thames.

Mohammed is alleged to have turned so that his backpack, containing a home-made bomb, pointed towards a young mother, Nadia Baro, with her nine-month-old baby in a buggy. He then set off his device, but only the detonator exploded, sounding like a large firecracker. Most of the passengers fled to the next carriage, but Mrs. Baro was left behind. A middle-aged off-duty fireman, Angus Campbell, helped her to get away. As the train drew into Oval station, he told the driver on the intercom: “Don’t open the doors!” Even though this was only two weeks after the carnage of 7/7, the driver ignored this request, and Mohammed ran out of the train. A retired engineer, George Brawley, tried to grab him, but he broke free.

At this point, Mr. Burton-Garnett decided to give chase. Though the fugitive was a third of his age and highly dangerous, the unarmed septuagenarian bookseller was fearless. He ran up the escalator after Mohammed, shouting: “Stop that man! Get the police!” In his own words, Mr. Burton-Garnett “tore after him but he was about nine or ten stair treads ahead of me. Halfway up I sort of ran out of steam. I was just recovering from a gall-bladder operation, otherwise I think I might have been a bit faster.”

What would have happened if he had caught Mohammed probably didn’t occur to him. It is surely significant that a man of Mr. Burton-Garnett’s age and health would be so careless of his own safety. Mr. Brawley and Mr. Campbell were also older men. Younger people are much less likely to feel an obligation to intervene in such situations, having been warned by the police and brought up by their parents not to do so. They learn that the “streetwise” thing to do if they see a crime being committed is to run away. I do not wish to disparage our youth: after all, the majority of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are in their teens or twenties. And plenty of young civilians are not afraid to have a go at criminals and terrorists. But in doing so they go against the grain of an overprotective culture.

The inspiring message of the passengers on Flight 93, who prevented an even worse catastrophe on 9/11, is that a war in which the suicide bomber is a key weapon can only be won if civilians defy regulations and rely on their own initiative.

Next time I open an old book, I shall think of Mr. Burton-Garnett. He may belong in the gallery of English eccentrics, but he is a hero nevertheless. Where manliness is mocked and cowardice is institutionalized, you need to be eccentric to be brave. There is something both comic and moving about the image of an erudite gentleman, more accustomed to leafing through old folios, in hot pursuit of an alleged suicide bomber who thought nothing of killing a mother and child in cold blood.

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Citizen Hussein at the Gallows

Much has been said (including by contentions blogger Emanuele Ottolenghi) about the execution of Saddam Hussein, including vocal criticism of the widely disseminated photographs and videos of the event. These images are indeed disquieting—and not merely because of the noose and the hooded executioners they show in such detail. Their uncomfortable closeness to the proceedings themselves, placing us upon the scaffold rather than at a safe remove, also disturbs the viewer. When news got out that vicious taunting accompanied the hanging, it seemed oddly understandable: although despicable, these taunts were the only note of human feeling in the grim efficiency of the proceeding.

The remorselessly bureaucratic character of Hussein’s hanging, conducted behind closed doors and without ceremony, was presumably intended to avoid creating a cult of martyrdom around him. There is a long history of such attempts at avoidance, as is shown in a recent essay by the art historian Samuel Edgerton, entitled “When Even Artists Encouraged the Death Penalty.”

When Charles I was executed in England in 1649, the proceedings were carefully choreographed. The method of execution then current in England was a medieval one: noblemen were dispatched as they knelt upright by an executioner standing behind them—letting them die in an attitude of dignified prayer. But Charles was made to place his head upon a block, which had been whittled down so low that the king had to prostrate himself, removing him from the sight of the volatile populace of London. Not until woodcuts of the scene were rushed into distribution did the public know how the king had comported himself.

The public execution of France’s Louis XVI, although savage by modern standards, prefigures the bureaucratic capital punishment of modern times. The guillotine was created as a rational form of execution, meant to be as painless as possible, and to seem impersonal. In its mechanical regularity and looming presence the public was meant to see the rationality and power of the nascent modern state. And so the vanquished king was executed as Citizen Capet*, a public demonstration of the final subjugation of all to the state.

Our era is more squeamish about such displays: think of the hygenic, secretive conditions under which criminals are executed in this country. But Hussein was no mere criminal; he was a genocidal tyrant, and his execution deserves a place in public memory, even at the risk of making a martyr of him. If the images of Hussein’s grim, efficient execution are disturbing, we might consider how disturbing it would be if there were no images at all.

* Correction: “Citizen Capet” originally read “Citizen Capulet.” 

Much has been said (including by contentions blogger Emanuele Ottolenghi) about the execution of Saddam Hussein, including vocal criticism of the widely disseminated photographs and videos of the event. These images are indeed disquieting—and not merely because of the noose and the hooded executioners they show in such detail. Their uncomfortable closeness to the proceedings themselves, placing us upon the scaffold rather than at a safe remove, also disturbs the viewer. When news got out that vicious taunting accompanied the hanging, it seemed oddly understandable: although despicable, these taunts were the only note of human feeling in the grim efficiency of the proceeding.

The remorselessly bureaucratic character of Hussein’s hanging, conducted behind closed doors and without ceremony, was presumably intended to avoid creating a cult of martyrdom around him. There is a long history of such attempts at avoidance, as is shown in a recent essay by the art historian Samuel Edgerton, entitled “When Even Artists Encouraged the Death Penalty.”

When Charles I was executed in England in 1649, the proceedings were carefully choreographed. The method of execution then current in England was a medieval one: noblemen were dispatched as they knelt upright by an executioner standing behind them—letting them die in an attitude of dignified prayer. But Charles was made to place his head upon a block, which had been whittled down so low that the king had to prostrate himself, removing him from the sight of the volatile populace of London. Not until woodcuts of the scene were rushed into distribution did the public know how the king had comported himself.

The public execution of France’s Louis XVI, although savage by modern standards, prefigures the bureaucratic capital punishment of modern times. The guillotine was created as a rational form of execution, meant to be as painless as possible, and to seem impersonal. In its mechanical regularity and looming presence the public was meant to see the rationality and power of the nascent modern state. And so the vanquished king was executed as Citizen Capet*, a public demonstration of the final subjugation of all to the state.

Our era is more squeamish about such displays: think of the hygenic, secretive conditions under which criminals are executed in this country. But Hussein was no mere criminal; he was a genocidal tyrant, and his execution deserves a place in public memory, even at the risk of making a martyr of him. If the images of Hussein’s grim, efficient execution are disturbing, we might consider how disturbing it would be if there were no images at all.

* Correction: “Citizen Capet” originally read “Citizen Capulet.” 

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Common Ground with Syria?

On the heels of my last post about Israeli-Syrian negotiations comes Michael Oren’s op-ed in the January 24 New York Times, “What if Israel and Syria Find Common Ground?” In this opinion piece, Oren—author of the best-selling Six Days of War (reviewed in COMMENTARY by Victor Davis Hanson) and the new Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (reviewed in January’s COMMENTARY by me)—recommends that Israel make peace with Syria even if this means “forfeiting the Golan Heights” and initiating “a clash between Israel and Washington.”

Frankly, Oren, who has always been something of a hawk when it comes to Israeli-Arab relations, startles me. The surprise lies not so much in his readiness for Israel to “clash” with Washington, even though this is nothing to be made light of. Rather, it lies in his endorsing the argument that it is worth giving in to Syrian demands on the Golan because, as he put it in the Times, this would “invariably provide for the cessation of Syrian aid to Hamas and Hizballah.” More “crucial still,” he writes, “by detaching Syria from Iran’s orbit,” such a concession would enable Israel to “address the Iranian nuclear threat—perhaps by military means—without fear of retribution from Syrian ground forces and missiles.”

Let’s assume for the moment that Oren is right and that Syria can be bribed into ditching Hizballah, Iran, and Hamas by giving it back the Golan. Does this mean that the Israeli air force can then attack Iran’s nuclear installations with impunity? Hardly. Even if Israel does not have to worry about Syrian missiles and ground forces, it will still have to worry about Hizballah and Iranian missiles, as well as about the possible failure of its air attack, not to mention strongly condemnatory international reaction. And what if the United States attacks Iran first, in which case Syria would be highly unlikely to get involved even without the gift of the Golan? And how does Oren know how Syria will behave once it has the Golan back and is sitting on the Sea of Galilee and the cliffs overlooking northern Israel, or what unexpected political developments in Syria (or elsewhere in the Middle East) may take place five or ten years from now, or how the message that Israel is ready to cede territory for short-term gains will be interpreted by the Palestinians and the Arab world?

Land is an unchanging asset; it never loses its value. Political developments are contingent and unpredictable. To give up the unchanging for the contingent and the certain for the unpredictable is never a good idea, quite apart from the strong historical, legal, and moral claim that Israel has on the Golan. It’s not fear of clashing with Washington that should keep it from surrendering the Heights, but fear of compromising its own most vital interests.

On the heels of my last post about Israeli-Syrian negotiations comes Michael Oren’s op-ed in the January 24 New York Times, “What if Israel and Syria Find Common Ground?” In this opinion piece, Oren—author of the best-selling Six Days of War (reviewed in COMMENTARY by Victor Davis Hanson) and the new Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (reviewed in January’s COMMENTARY by me)—recommends that Israel make peace with Syria even if this means “forfeiting the Golan Heights” and initiating “a clash between Israel and Washington.”

Frankly, Oren, who has always been something of a hawk when it comes to Israeli-Arab relations, startles me. The surprise lies not so much in his readiness for Israel to “clash” with Washington, even though this is nothing to be made light of. Rather, it lies in his endorsing the argument that it is worth giving in to Syrian demands on the Golan because, as he put it in the Times, this would “invariably provide for the cessation of Syrian aid to Hamas and Hizballah.” More “crucial still,” he writes, “by detaching Syria from Iran’s orbit,” such a concession would enable Israel to “address the Iranian nuclear threat—perhaps by military means—without fear of retribution from Syrian ground forces and missiles.”

Let’s assume for the moment that Oren is right and that Syria can be bribed into ditching Hizballah, Iran, and Hamas by giving it back the Golan. Does this mean that the Israeli air force can then attack Iran’s nuclear installations with impunity? Hardly. Even if Israel does not have to worry about Syrian missiles and ground forces, it will still have to worry about Hizballah and Iranian missiles, as well as about the possible failure of its air attack, not to mention strongly condemnatory international reaction. And what if the United States attacks Iran first, in which case Syria would be highly unlikely to get involved even without the gift of the Golan? And how does Oren know how Syria will behave once it has the Golan back and is sitting on the Sea of Galilee and the cliffs overlooking northern Israel, or what unexpected political developments in Syria (or elsewhere in the Middle East) may take place five or ten years from now, or how the message that Israel is ready to cede territory for short-term gains will be interpreted by the Palestinians and the Arab world?

Land is an unchanging asset; it never loses its value. Political developments are contingent and unpredictable. To give up the unchanging for the contingent and the certain for the unpredictable is never a good idea, quite apart from the strong historical, legal, and moral claim that Israel has on the Golan. It’s not fear of clashing with Washington that should keep it from surrendering the Heights, but fear of compromising its own most vital interests.

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It’s a Lemann

The Scooter Libby case is very complicated. Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, has now offered a brief account of its origins in the New Yorker that makes it even more so.

Lemann explains that during the run-up to the second Gulf war, the White House, in the grip of an “obsession with finding hard evidence for what it already believes,” came up dry in its search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and thereafter “the search had to be conducted with a little more creativity.” Toward that end, writes Lemann,

the White House dispatched former Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger, in February of 2002, to find proof that the country had shipped yellowcake uranium to Iraq. Wilson not only came up empty-handed; he said so publicly, in a Times op-ed piece that he published five months later. The administration then went on another search for evidence—the kind that could be used to discredit Wilson—and began disseminating it, off the record, to a few trusted reporters.

The origins of Wilson’s trips to Niger were examined exhaustively in 2004 by the Senate Intelligence Committee in its report on the “U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq.” Although parts of the report remain classified, the unclassified sections are quite plain. They state that interviews and documents provided to the Committee by officials of the CIA’s Counterproliferation Division (CPD)

indicate that [Wilson’s] wife, a CPD employee, suggested his name for the trip. The CPD reports officer told Committee staff that the former ambassador’s wife “offered up his name” and a memorandum to the Deputy Chief of the CPD on February 12, 2002, from the former ambassador’s wife says, “my husband has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity.” This was just one day before CPD sent a cable [DELETED] requesting concurrence with CPD’s idea to send the former ambassador to Niger. . .The former ambassador’s wife told Committee staff that when CPD decided it would like to send the former ambassador to Niger, she approached her husband on behalf of the CIA.”

The report goes on to make clear that the White House was completely in the dark about the CIA plan. At no point did it intervene to send Wilson anywhere or even have knowledge that a mission to Niger by the former ambassador was under way. Even Patrick Fitzgerald’s indictment of Libby confirms this, stating unequivocally that “the CIA decided on its own initiative to send Wilson to the country of Niger to investigate allegations involving Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium yellowcake.”

Lemann concludes that the “problem with the Bush administration is not that it is uninterested in hard facts” but resides rather in “the way in which the administration goes about marshalling those facts.”

But what exactly are the facts and with what kind of care, to turn things around, has Lemann himself marshaled them? It will be a most interesting twist if Lemann, or the New Yorker’s highly vaunted fact checkers, have information contradicting the Senate report and Fitzgerald’s indictment on this central point. My bet is that they do not. Rather, in striving to demonstrate that the Bush administration was in the grip of an “obsession” about weapons of mass destruction, they appear to be in the grip of an obsession of their own. Pursuing it evidently demands a bit of “creativity.”

To contribute to the considerable costs of defending Scooter Libby, send a check to:

Libby Legal Defense Trust
2100 M Street, NW Suite 170-362
Washington, DC 20037-1233 

To contribute to the even more considerable costs of running the Columbia University School of Journalism, send a check to:

The Columbia University School of Journalism
2950 Broadway
New York, NY 10027 

 

The Scooter Libby case is very complicated. Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, has now offered a brief account of its origins in the New Yorker that makes it even more so.

Lemann explains that during the run-up to the second Gulf war, the White House, in the grip of an “obsession with finding hard evidence for what it already believes,” came up dry in its search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and thereafter “the search had to be conducted with a little more creativity.” Toward that end, writes Lemann,

the White House dispatched former Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger, in February of 2002, to find proof that the country had shipped yellowcake uranium to Iraq. Wilson not only came up empty-handed; he said so publicly, in a Times op-ed piece that he published five months later. The administration then went on another search for evidence—the kind that could be used to discredit Wilson—and began disseminating it, off the record, to a few trusted reporters.

The origins of Wilson’s trips to Niger were examined exhaustively in 2004 by the Senate Intelligence Committee in its report on the “U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq.” Although parts of the report remain classified, the unclassified sections are quite plain. They state that interviews and documents provided to the Committee by officials of the CIA’s Counterproliferation Division (CPD)

indicate that [Wilson’s] wife, a CPD employee, suggested his name for the trip. The CPD reports officer told Committee staff that the former ambassador’s wife “offered up his name” and a memorandum to the Deputy Chief of the CPD on February 12, 2002, from the former ambassador’s wife says, “my husband has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity.” This was just one day before CPD sent a cable [DELETED] requesting concurrence with CPD’s idea to send the former ambassador to Niger. . .The former ambassador’s wife told Committee staff that when CPD decided it would like to send the former ambassador to Niger, she approached her husband on behalf of the CIA.”

The report goes on to make clear that the White House was completely in the dark about the CIA plan. At no point did it intervene to send Wilson anywhere or even have knowledge that a mission to Niger by the former ambassador was under way. Even Patrick Fitzgerald’s indictment of Libby confirms this, stating unequivocally that “the CIA decided on its own initiative to send Wilson to the country of Niger to investigate allegations involving Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium yellowcake.”

Lemann concludes that the “problem with the Bush administration is not that it is uninterested in hard facts” but resides rather in “the way in which the administration goes about marshalling those facts.”

But what exactly are the facts and with what kind of care, to turn things around, has Lemann himself marshaled them? It will be a most interesting twist if Lemann, or the New Yorker’s highly vaunted fact checkers, have information contradicting the Senate report and Fitzgerald’s indictment on this central point. My bet is that they do not. Rather, in striving to demonstrate that the Bush administration was in the grip of an “obsession” about weapons of mass destruction, they appear to be in the grip of an obsession of their own. Pursuing it evidently demands a bit of “creativity.”

To contribute to the considerable costs of defending Scooter Libby, send a check to:

Libby Legal Defense Trust
2100 M Street, NW Suite 170-362
Washington, DC 20037-1233 

To contribute to the even more considerable costs of running the Columbia University School of Journalism, send a check to:

The Columbia University School of Journalism
2950 Broadway
New York, NY 10027 

 

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