Mark Danner at UC-Berkeley “Story Hour”, Morrison Room at Doe Library. Introduced by Vikram Chandra.
Beverly Ingram: Hi, everyone. Thanks so much for your patience as we finish our last little technical bits up here. I wanted to welcome you to another evening of Story Hour in the Library. Thanks so much for coming. I’m Beverly Ingram. I’m the coordinator for the program and I’m delighted to have Mark Danner here with us this evening.
I’d like to invite you to sign up for our mailing list. That’s at the front desk over here. You can learn about Story Hour. You can also find out about other things that are happening in the library, if you wish. You can also find us on Facebook, Facebook.com/StoryHour, and also at StoryHour.Berkeley.edu, where you’ll find webcasts of some of our previous readings, as well as the full season for the year. We also, I want to point out, on the front desk we have postcards.
We’re celebrating the centennial of this beautiful building you’re in later this month, a little less than two weeks from today, so we’ll have an afternoon of events on March 21st, and I’d love to see all of you there, if, for nothing else, then the free cupcakes at 4:30. You can also pick up flyers for the rest of the Story Hour season if you’d like.
I also want to thank the ASUC Bookstore for being here to sell books this evening, and our author for agreeing to sign them. Turn off your cell phones, all that good stuff. And with that, I’ll hand it over to Vikram, who will do our introduction.
Vikram Chandra: Hi. Thanks for coming. It’s my pleasure today to introduce Mark Danner, who was born in Utica, New York. After graduating with an interdisciplinary degree in modern literatures and aesthetics from Harvard, he began working as an editorial assistant at the New York Review of Books. Just three years later, he became senior editor at Harper’s magazine, and then after two years moved on to an editorship at the New York Times Magazine, where he mostly wrote about politics and foreign affairs.
In 1990, Mark published a three-part series in The New Yorker titled “A Reporter at Large: Beyond the Mountains.” These three articles about Haiti were awarded the 1990 National Magazine Award for Reporting. Shortly after that, he joined The New Yorker staff. In 1993, the magazine, for only the second time in its history, devoted an entire issue to one story, which was written by Mark, “The Truth of El Mozote.”
This article about the infamous massacre of the entire population of a Salvadoran village, some 700 men, women and children, by an army unit trained by American military advisors, exploded the Reagan Administration’s position on the said event that nothing at all had happened in El Mozote, certainly no massacre, and if you believed that sort of thing, you were being a victim of leftist propaganda. The story won an Overseas Press Club award and a Latin American Studies Association award. In 1994, Mark published a book based on this article, The Massacre at El Mozote: a Parable of the Cold War. The New York Times wrote, “Once in a rare while a writer reexamines a debated episode of recent history with such thoroughness and integrity that the truth can no longer be in doubt.”
Since then, Mark has brought that same thoroughness and integrity to his writing about war and conflict in regions as varied as Central America, Haiti, the Balkans, Iraq and the Middle East. His books include Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror, The Secret Way to War, which is subtitled The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War’s Buried History, and Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War.
His work has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times, Aperture magazine, the New York Review of Books, the Washington Post and many other newspapers and magazines. His honors include a National Magazine Award, three Overseas Press awards, and an Emmy. He has been named a McArthur Fellow — that, you will remember, is the genius award — and was awarded the Carey McWilliams Award from the American Political Science Association for “his major journalistic contribution to our understanding of politics.”
He is currently a professor here at Berkeley and also spends half the year at Bard College in New York as a professor of foreign affairs, politics and the humanities. In June of this year he published a new book, Torture and the Forever War, which describes and investigates the torture of Guantanamo detainee Abu Zubaydah, and in doing so, forces us to face the conditions and the continuing intellectual and moral evasions that have allowed the United States to become a country that officially and openly tortures.
In Massacre at El Mozote, a career diplomat offers an explanation for the Reagan Administration’s careful distancing of itself from the front line consequences of the policies it has set in motion. He says, “It’s a dirty little war and they don’t want to touch it.” Over the last 25 years, Mark’s work has brought home to us the realities of all the dirty little wars none of us want to touch. Susan Sontag correctly described his writing as admirable and necessary. It is also, I think, courageous, graceful and compassionate. Please join me in welcoming Mark Danner. [Applause.]
Mark Danner: Thank you very much, Vikram, for that beautiful introduction. I’m very grateful. I always wish my mother was here when I get an introduction like that. And thank you, Beverly, for inviting me. I’m just delighted to be here at Story Hour, and thank you all for coming on this absolutely beautiful, transportingly beautiful day.
When I was invited to come, I just thought of the associations of story hour, which is people gathered around in this close and beautiful room listening to gorgeous stories, uplifting stories, lovely stories, and I thought, I don’t have any of those. [Laughs.] I just have sort of blood and torture and all the stuff that Vikram just described. I dedicated this last book, Stripping Bare the Body, to my mother with the words, “To my mother, in partial answer to her persistent question, ‘Why can’t you go somewhere nice for a change?'” And this spring I’m going somewhere nice, or at least I told her I was earlier in the spring, to Athens. So of course Athens has started to be the scene of riots and burning and all the rest of it. Is that a little narcissistic? I don’t know.
In any case, having thought about it a little more, and trying to think of uplifting things, I finally, during the last couple of weeks, and particularly the last week, during the public debate that we’ve been having, insofar as you can call it a debate, about Iran and Israel, Iran and nuclear weapons, President Obama saying that his policy, when it comes to Iran, is not containment, which is to say all options are on the table to prevent them acquiring a nuclear weapon, including, of course, the use of force, and the braying on the Republican side, from the Republican campaign about why hasn’t he struck them yet, having heard this discussion, if one could call it that, I thought, oh, what the hell, I’ll read some of my work about various wars and various so-called dark places, and with the excuse, I suppose, that our most distinctive quality, I think, as a polity, as a great power, as a superpower, as we like to call ourselves, it seems to me, is the power to forget.
We have a power of blithe forgetting, and we tend to send our troops into these places, go into these places, as the phrase is — and the three cities I’ll talk about here are all places that have hosted American troops in the last couple of decades — we go into them with thoughts of transformation, making them like us or making them like democracies. We tend to wreak a great deal of destruction in one way or another.
We focus our attention on them like a laser beam, we learn about them, and then we leave, and the spotlight is withdrawn. Those places, as far as Americans are concerned, most Americans, anyway, usually fall back into darkness — darkness over a good many ruins that we leave in our wake, and we move merrily on and talk about, at least some of us, the next war to come.
And one of the things that struck me in the discussion about Iran is that the discussion of attacking this country of 80 million people, no one even seems to consider that it might, in some way, be risky or that somebody might get hurt — somebody, one of us, even. And it’s an incredible thing, I think at the heart of, perhaps, what it is to be an American, to ignore that. But it seems to me it has its costs as well.
Anyway, so in the service of fighting slightly against the power of forgetting, I thought I’d read a little bit of writing from three different places. One is called “Mornings in Port-au-Prince.” The other is from Srebrenica, a place we’ve talked about recently a lot because of what’s going on in Homs, Syria, and this piece is called “Explosion in the Marketplace.” And the final one is called “Autumns in Baghdad.”
And I think if we have a bit of time, I’ll do something maybe a little more uplifting from the fall, when I spent time in Ramallah, and I call this story, unwritten, but perhaps tellable nonetheless, “Venus and Ramallah,” so I’ll hope to get to that as well. This piece is from Port-au-Prince during the transition to democracy which began in ’86, which I was writing about beginning in ’86 and a couple of years later, and which is still going on as we speak.
Mornings in Port au-Prince, just before dawn, as the last, scattered gunshots faded in the distance and the outlines of the city began to take shape in the dirty air — tiny houses, painted aqua and salmon; the huge and ghostly National Palace, gleaming white; gray and rust-colored slums, canopied in smoke — my colleagues and I would go off in search of bodies. This was during the days leading up to Sunday, November 29, 1987, the day of the election that was to bring democracy to Haiti. Each morning, we would meet in the darkness in front of the Holiday Inn, near the glass doors of a newly opened press center, through which we could just make out banks of telephones and telexes and stacks of cheerful red-and-blue election press kits.
During those last days, foreign correspondents and international observers and election experts poured into the country, and the afternoons were filled with solemn press conferences, but the real story unfolded at night. It was a loud and violent conversation, meant to be overheard: one followed its progress by charting the gunshots echoing over the city, then read the results by cruising the streets at daybreak to count the corpses.
On the Tuesday before the election, we set out in the white early morning, skirting the Champ de Mars park, and passing beneath hundreds of little blue-and-red flags that hung limply from the telephone wires, celebrating Haiti’s new democracy, and under banners stretched across the main streets exhorting Haitians to vote. Following the brown smoke billowing in the distance, we drove slowly through the waking capital, and soon, as we circled the perimeter of the great bidonville (the “tin-can city”) of La Saline, already covered over in brown cooking smoke and blurry in the rising heat, we found the first remnant of the night’s conversation. Not far from rows of brightly colored camionnettes, called “tap taps,” just in from the countryside, where shirtless, sweating men were unloading baskets of mangoes and bunches of green bananas and great dirty bags of charcoal to feed the tens of thousands of cooking fires in the vast slum, we came upon a clump of chattering people — a sight that in Haiti that week invariably meant a body.
Pushing through the crowd, we, discovered a tall, lean young man, several hours dead, laid out carefully on Haiti’s Route Nationale 1. His body had been prepared for its role: a rope had been twisted about his neck, and above the frayed noose a metal necklace had been pulled tight around his chin, but most of it had disappeared into the gaping maroon slashes around his mouth and throat. Distinct, deep machete cuts in a V-shaped pattern above and below the mouth. They seemed almost an attempt to construct for the victim, after death, a parody second mouth. A partly smoked cigarette had been placed between his lips, a charred wooden match balanced jauntily on his chin.
Within easy reach next to his stomach, which, left exposed, was already dense with flies in the rising heat, were a handful of rice, a can of tomato sauce, and a slab of cheese, all displayed on a scrap of brown cardboard. “That’s so he can eat,” an old man said, laughing, bringing on the laughter of the crowd. “And the cigarette, that’s to keep him happy.” There was no blood on his shirt, the old man said, because when they spotted him near the La Saline marketplace early that morning, as gunshots echoed in the distance, this tall young man had been wearing a dress — the all-purpose Haitian disguise — and carrying a can of gasoline.
He was a Tonton Macoute, they said, a member of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s militia — one of the thousands who had gone into hiding after the fall of the dictator, nearly two years earlier, and who now, during the months of growing violence, had begun to reappear in the neighborhoods. He had come to spread terror by bringing to the people of La Saline what they dreaded most: a fire that in seconds would roar through the dense labyrinth of dry scrap-wood hovels, leaving scores of people dead and thousands homeless.
But the brigades de vigilance — neighborhood committees that had formed themselves in these last days of terror — had been watching. And when the Macoute appeared in the dark and now deserted marketplace, wearing his dress and carrying his can of gasoline, the brigade slum boys let out a shout and gave chase, pursuing him down the tiny alleyways, over the ditches filled with pale green waste, until at last they caught him, dragging him to the ground beneath the black mountains of the vast charcoal yard.
There, in front of the angry, shouting crowd, the slum boys stunned him with their machetes, then lynched him. They prepared the body and left it on the road for Guédé, the voodoo lord of the Crossroads to the Underworld, to attend to in his own good time — for Guédé, despite his great power, often appears as a poor wandering beggar, a famished traveler who would be sure to look kindly on the sumptuous meal of rice and sauce and cheese that had been left beside the young man’s lifeless hand.
Fire was the chosen means of night terror in that election week. A few hours before dawn the previous day, a mob of men armed with heavy clubs had stormed into the Marché Salomon, a huge, lofty building with concrete arches and a sheet-metal roof, that since the late nineteenth century had housed one of the city’s main public markets. Shouting and screaming in the darkness, the men had used their clubs to beat the people sleeping there — mostly market women in from the countryside, who were guarding their precious merchandise, and the usual complement of beggars.
The men had chased them off, then carefully, methodically poured out their gasoline and torched the building. The enormous blaze roared until dawn, reddening the night sky and covering the capital in a pall of smoke that reeked of burned bananas and charred meat. At dawn, one could see amid the smoking rubble scores of beggars and market women staggering about, moaning and wailing as they picked through the tons of blackened, stinking food. I watched a frail old man probe around, then straighten up and let out a shout: he held up a piece of charred meat in triumph before stuffing it into his mouth as his colleagues raced toward him through the rubble.
A woman with a red kerchief on her head pulled something from the black waste and rose up straight, showing me what had once been her prized hen. By now, others had gathered around me, hoping that this white man with his notebook might be moved by their litany of losses and somehow make it right.
“I lost some beans and some bananas.” “I lost three chickens.” “I lost some beef.” A little white-whiskered man, in blue jeans and a white shirt, cut short the voices. “Yesterday, many people went to bed hungry, but today we’ll have food,” he said. He held up a burned piece of beef and gestured, grinning, toward the black landscape. “There’s food in Haiti now, because things are starting to boil.”
This was the beginning of a week that led to an election that some of you may remember. It was the entry into democracy, and in fact it ended in a massacre where a couple of hundred Haitians, two hundred to three hundred, were killed, mostly with machetes, and a number of journalists were simply made to kneel down and assassinated on the street.
Three colleagues and I were almost killed with machetes as well, and just through a stupid happenstance we were let go. And I later learned this particular confrontation had been filmed by a CBS crew that was “courageously” hiding in the trees, and they actually filmed it and showed it on CBS that night, and my parents happened to see it, so my mother has never quite forgiven me for that, I don’t think, but I’m still working on it.
Anyway, I think we’ll leap forward a bit to a city that’s been preoccupying me, or a place that’s been preoccupying me a bit lately, which is as Srebrenica — or excuse me, Sarajevo. Srebrenica also, because Srebrenica was the great massacre of the Balkan Wars that I wrote about and that clearly had something to do with President Obama wanting to intervene in Libya, because there were fears that Benghazi, which was being encircled by Gaddafi’s forces, would become a second Srebrenica, so it’s amazing to me the way these particular stories seem to intersect and stay present in one way or another.
And Sarajevo, lately, has been in the discussion, I think, because of what’s going on in Homs in Syria, where a couple of journalists were killed last week, including a friend of mine, Marie Colvin, whose transmissions out of and reporting out of Homs were tracked by the Syrian army, and they bombed the house and killed her and a colleague.
So the discussion about Sarajevo, at the time, was very much about after the Cold War. We’re talking about, for those of you who don’t remember, roughly the years ’91 to ’95, and the great debate really was, okay, this genocide is going on, and we’re watching it on television, and what is the responsibility of the U.S. and the West after the Cold War. The Cold War had ended. Civilians were being massacred, a hundred thousand or more.
And in fact, at a certain point during the campaign of 1992, between George H.W. Bush and Governor Clinton, there were actually broadcasts of footage from Omarska, which was a concentration camp in northern Bosnia where several thousand people, certainly, tens of thousands, maybe, died, and we finally had the answer to the question of what would the West have done if there had been television cameras in Auschwitz. And from those broadcasts we can perhaps infer that the answer to that is nothing, because nothing did happen.
In any case, I want to read something from the marketplace in Sarajevo, where I was reporting, actually, for ABC News, for Peter Jennings Reporting. We did a documentary on this, so we were filming that day. It’s called “Explosion in the Marketplace.”
Early one unseasonably mild afternoon in February 1994, Sarajevans shed their heavy coats and hats and poured out into the streets and markets, allowing themselves to forget, in the bright warming sun, that from artillery bunkers and snipers’ nests dugs into hills and mountains above the city, hunters stared down, tracking their prey. But the people of Sarajevo were not permitted to forget. As we cruised the city’s streets in a small armored car, climbing, under a trembling, light-filled sky toward the Spanish Fort, signs fell abruptly into place: a sudden chaos of horns and screams and screeching tires, a blue van tearing by with one eye peering out from a shattered face, and, racing in its wake, a battered white Yugo with a smeared red handprint emblazoned on its door.
We turned and forced our way back, struggling to trace the source of this grim caravan. When a policeman bade us stop, we clambered out and trotted down cluttered streets, dodging and stumbling through jumbles of honking vehicles until we entered once more the tiny square where, the day before, we had edged our way through boisterous crowds, chatting with vendors behind bare wood tables that had held the besieged city’s paltry wares: handfuls of leeks and potatoes, plastic combs in garish pink and green, scatterings of loose nuts and bolts, a blackened bit of banana, a monkey wrench half-rusted, glinting fitfully in the beneficent sun.
Twenty-four hours later the Markela — the marketplace — stood precisely so, when, at 12:37 on February 5, 1994, a 12-millimeter mortar shell plunged earthward in an impossibly perfect trajectory, plummeted within view of the somber gray facade of the Catholic cathedral and by the windows of gray apartment buildings, passed through the market’s ramshackle metal roof and erupted its five pounds of high explosives spewing out red-hot shrapnel and sending corrugated metal shards slicing through the crowd. In an eye-blink, a thick forest of chattering, gossiping, bartering people had been cut down.
Turning into the tiny square, we found not infernal smoke or darkness but, amid a terrible clarity, clumps of dark bundles strewn about the asphalt, and between them, spreading slowly amid shards of charred metal and blackened vegetables and bits of plastic, puddles of slick, dark liquid.
We stepped gingerly forward, letting pass two men dragging a limp, softly moaning figure. Before us men moved from bundle to bundle, crouching, pressing fingers to a throat, pausing, pushing back an eyelid, staring. I left the curb, feeling my throat constrict as I passed into a cloud of invisible and nauseating cordite. Slipping and stumbling against a car, I looked down and saw my boot soles already shiny and slick.
A big man danced quickly by me, hoisting the video camera on his shoulder, and close at his back came sound, craning his silver boom forward over the cameraman’s head so that the two together appeared like some great rapacious bird. I placed my hand on the sound man’s back and followed step by careful step, and we three passed through the bloody topography, tracing our way slowly past torsos and parts of torsos, past arms and hands and bits of limbs and unidentifiable hunks of flesh, all mixed with blackened metal and smashed vegetables and, here and there, a long splinter of wooden table. At the center of it all, a man in a dark overcoat lay on his back, fully intact, face perfectly gray, eyes perfectly empty, staring blankly up at the perfect sky.
I gripped my pen and notebook and looked about me, somewhat bewildered. Here and there I recognized, or thought I did, vendors I had chatted with the day before. Some artilleryman on one of those mountainsides had made objects of them now, exhibits for us and the evening news. I tried to tally the corpses, matching limbs to trunks, heads to limbs, counting, counting, but it was impossible. In the back of the market, three blank-faced men worked with black-gloved hands behind a decrepit truck, crouching, lifting, heaving. As I approached I realized they were trying to match up parts of bodies on long pieces of corrugated metal. By now the truck bed was half full and its tires and undercarriage were thick with gore.
Turning back I saw a big, mustached man weeping, his hands raised and grasping the air as he struggled to reach a blood-soaked bundle of cloth and flesh on the ground. Two smaller men held him back, murmuring softly to him, working to push him back. As the mustached face, red and distorted and full of fury, rose above the shoulders of those imprisoning him, I realized that I had chatted with him the day before, that he had been selling…what? Yes, lentils, that was it, lentils and potatoes, and his wife, now at his feet, had stood at his side. Now he lifted his great head, stared upward, and, raising a fist, began to shout. Along with several others, I followed his gaze and picked out the glinting specks in the bright blue sky: the planes of NATO patrolling over the “safe area” of Sarajevo.
Amid the human wreckages of this sun-filled square, what could the phrase possibly mean, safe area? Since United Nations diplomats had coined it the previous spring, no one had quite known. Now, amid the stench of cordite in Sarajevo’s Markela, the world had at last been offered the hint of a definition: “safe area” meant very little. It was a pretense — a policy of gesture, made solely of words.
Now large glass lenses, more and more of them bobbing and glinting as ever more cameramen pushed their way into the tiny square, would make those words flesh. A few hundred miles away, Germans and French would press a button on a remote control and confront overwhelming gore. Across the ocean Americans, with, presumably, more delicate sensibilities, would be permitted to see much less, but enough blood would remain for many of these citizens to pose a heartfelt if ephemeral question: why is nothing being done about this?
Though the Serbs had shelled Sarajevo for nearly two years, though they had destroyed the National Library, burning hundreds of thousands of books, and had methodically reduced to ruins many of the city’s other cultural treasures, though they had cut off electricity and water, forcing Sarajevans to place themselves in snipers’ telescopic sites as they chopped down every tree in every park in search of firewood and stood in line filling plastic bottles at outdoor water spigots, though the Serbs had killed and wounded thousands of Sarajevans from their bunkers in the hills and from their snipers’ nests in the burned out high-rise buildings that lined “sniper’s alley,” after two years of siege only an event like the marketplace massacre had a chance of engaging the fickle attention of the world.
The day before, the Serbs had launched three shells in the Dobrinja neighborhood, killing ten Sarajevans as they waited for food. Twelve days before, two Serb shells had blown apart six children as they sledded in the filthy snow. How many days of such steady, methodical killing would be needed to match the marketplace’s toll? Six? Seven? And yet such daily work, however deadly, didn’t matter, for depending on the news in New York or London or Paris, it did not rise to the level of “massacre.”
I stood in the morgue across the road from Kosovo Hospital. Compared to the blood slick ground of the Markela, compared even to the hospital entrance — a hellhole with shattered figures dead and dying in the hallways and a doctor, face brightly flushed, furious, screaming at us — “Get out! Get out, I said! Let us do our work.”
Never really felt so sleazy as a reporter.
Compared to that it was quiet here, peaceful. I found myself alone for the first time that day. Alone in the morgue, alone with those who had suddenly become the most important actors in the Bosnia drama. It was they who had forced reluctant politicians and diplomats to come together — even now in Washington and Brussels and Paris they were gathering for urgent talks — and they who in the next few days would change the direction of the war. And yet they had done nothing more than thousands of Sarajevans before them: stood in a particular place at a particular time and, all unknowingly, found a sudden and unforeseen death.
I took out my notebook, drew a deep breath, and began to count. It was easier now, all had been properly arranged, what limbs and parts remained had been matched up by people well practiced in such things. Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three… Yes, this was a big story, perhaps the biggest of the war. Thirty-one, thirty-two… Yes, a huge story.
Let me just read a… A day after this I went up to Pale, which was the Bosnian Serb capital, which is sort of a ski chalet up above the city, and had interviewed Radovan Karadzic, who was the guy shelling Sarajevo and had been a resident of Sarajevo. This is a very small town. Everybody knew one another. He was a psychiatrist. Still is. He’s now on trial in The Hague. And a poet who had been rejected by Sarajevo’s cosmopolitan audience when he did his poetry readings, so beware, beware. And I went up to see him, and I’ll read just a brief part of that.
“Many had ice in their ears.”
“What? Excuse me?”
“Ice. They had ice in their ears,” said Dr. Radovan Karadzic, psychiatrist, poet, businessman, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, as he prepared to take another bite of stew. “You know, the Muslims, they took bodies from the morgue and they put them there in the market. Even when they shell themselves like this, no one shell kills that many. So they went to the morgue and they had ice in their ears.”
And this was two days after the scene I described to you, this lunch.
I was — and not for the first time during our lunch — left speechless. Dr. Karadzic, clearly a very intelligent man, had mastered the fine art of constructing and delivering with great sincerity utterances that seemed so distant from demonstrable reality that he left no common ground on which to contradict him. Ice in their ears? Muslim intelligence officers stealing into the morgue to snatch corpses, secreting them in cars, setting off a bomb in the marketplace, and in the smoke and confusion, leaving the frozen corpses strewn about the asphalt: it seemed an absurd idea. My memories of the gore of the Markela, only two days before, were precise and vivid, and yet I found myself thinking of the man in the overcoat lying on his back, staring upward, open-eyed. His face was peculiarly gray. Strangely, he bore no evident wounds. Ice in his ears? No. No, of course not.
Dr. Karadzic watched me, lightly smiled, took a bite of stew and chewed heartily. He was a hearty man, enormous, wide as the side of a barn and standing six foot four. In fact, he appeared taller than that, and this is clearly owing to his trademark hair. The hair is huge. The hair is sweeping and all-encompassing. It seems to be emerging from everywhere — head, forehead, ears, nose, in a kind of riot of power and fertility.
And indeed, though he lived in Sarajevo thirty years, took his psychiatric degree at the university and practiced in Kosovo Hospital, when he wasn’t studying medicine and dabbling in poetry for a year in New York; though he recited and sang his poetry in the cafes and bars of this most cosmopolitan city, the Bosnian capital, Radovan Karadzic was in fact a man of the mountains, from a small and rough Montenegrin village.
“Radovan has a sense of grandiosity, like many mountain people.”
Sorry, I won’t continue to do that. I interviewed Karadzic’s… The day after the Markela itself, I interviewed his training psychiatrist — his training analyst, I guess they’re called, Dr. Ceric, who said, “Radovan has a sense of grandiosity that has never been satisfied.” And he was there essentially trying to stitch up these bodies that his former tutee or analysand had blown a part.
So anyway, let me read a little bit from Baghdad, a more recent occurrence, and then perhaps a word from Ramallah. And I’m happy to talk about any of these places or answer any questions about reporting or… I mean, it strikes me, just reading these, that they sound so terribly grim, and yet there’s great pleasure in reporting. It’s a funny paradox.
And one of the strange things about reporting is the more you learn, the less you know. And it is a strange…you know, from the point of view of foreign policy and the way I began, talking about Iran, if there’s one lesson I’ve learned it’s that we go into these places and we know nothing about them, and they become more obscure the better… The more you learn about them, the more complicated they become, and the more complicated the kind of hydraulics of their politics become. And the notion that you can go in and remove Saddam and everything will be fine, the failure to see that Saddam was a product of political dysfunction, of complicated political dysfunction, not the cause of it, sort of passes over Americans. It doesn’t fit into their worldview, that sort of thinking.
Anyway, I don’t mean to sermonize. Let me read just a little bit from Baghdad. This is “Autumns in Baghdad.” The first sentence actually comes from a Nabokov story, for those of you who are Nabokov fans here, “Spring in Fialta,” one of my favorite stories.
Autumn in Baghdad is cloudy and gray. Trapped in rush-hour traffic one October morning, without warning my car bucks up and back, like a horse whose reins had been brutally pulled. For a jolting instant the explosion registers only as the absence of sound, a silent blow in the stomach; and then a beat later, as the hearing returns, a faint tinkling chorus: the store windows, all along busy Karrada Street, trembling together in their sashes. They were tinkling still when over the rooftops to the right came the immense eruption of oily black smoke.
Such dark plumes have become the beacons, the lighthouses, of contemporary Baghdad, and we rushed to follow, bumping over the center divider, vaulting the curb, screeching through the honking chaos of Seventies-vintage American cars, trailing the blasting horns and screaming tires for two, three, four heart-pounding moments until, barely three blocks away, at one end of a pleasant residential square, behind a gaggle of blue-shirted Iraqi security men running in panic about the grass, shouting, waving their AK-47s, we came upon two towering conflagrations, rising perhaps a dozen feet in the air, and, perfectly outlined in the bright orange flames, like skeletons preserved in amber, the blackened frames of what moments before had been a van and a four-wheel drive.
Between the two great fires rose a smaller one, eight or nine feet high, enclosing a tangled mass of metal. Pushing past the Iraqis, who shouted angrily, gesturing with their guns, I ran forward, toward the flames: the heat was intense. I saw slabs of smashed wall, hunks of rubble, glass, and sand scattered about, and behind it all an immense curtain of black smoke obscuring everything: the building, part of the International Red Cross compound, that stood there, the wall that had guarded it, the remains of the people who, four minutes before, had lived and worked there.
“Terrorism,” as the U.S. Army lieutenant colonel had told me ruefully the week before, “is Grand Theater,” and, as a mustached security man yanked me roughly by the arm, spinning me away from the flames, I saw that behind me the front rows had quickly filled: photographers with their long lenses, khaki vests, and shoulder bags struggled to push their way through the Iraqi security men, who, growing angrier, shouted and cursed, pushing them back.
Swinging their AK-47s, they managed to form a ragged perimeter against what was now a jostling, roiling crowd, while camera crews in the vanguard surged forward. Now a U.S. Army Humvee appeared; four American soldiers leaped out and plunged into the crowd, assault rifles raised, and began to scream, in what I had come to recognize as a characteristic form of address, “GET. THE FUCK. BACK! GET. THE FUCK. BACK!”
This seems to be a kind of chorus that’s taught them or something. I haven’t heard it anywhere else. Not yet on the Berkeley campus, anyway.
Very young men in tan camouflage fatigues, armed, red-faced, flustered; facing them, the men and women of the world press, Baghdad division, assembled in their hundreds in less than a quarter of an hour: in the front row, those who, like me, had had the dumb luck to be in the neighborhood; behind them, network crews who had received a quick tip from an embassy contact or an Iraqi stringer, or had simply heard or felt the explosion and pounded their way up to the hotel roof, scanning the horizon anxiously, locating the black beacon, and racing off to cover the story — or, as Lieutenant Colonel George Krivo put it bitterly, to “make the story. Here, media is the total message: I now have an understanding of McLuhan you wouldn’t believe. Kill twenty people here? In front of that lens it’s killing twenty thousand.”
The officers were very bitter about what they felt was a pacified city. They couldn’t understand how the killing of a hundred people could have such an effect, and they remained this way, the officers, anyway, not the soldiers.
Behind the flames and the dark smoke, amid the shattered walls and twisted metal, a dozen people lay dead, many of whom had been unlucky enough to find themselves passing the front of the International Red Cross compound when, at half past eight in the morning, a man later claiming to be of Saudi nationality drove an ambulance with Red Cross markings up to the security checkpoint and detonated what must have been several thousand pounds of explosives, collapsing forty feet of the protective wall and sending a huge sandbag barrier cascading forward. The Red Cross compound, with its security wall and sandbags and manned checkpoints, was a “hardened target” — as were, indeed, the three Baghdad police stations that, within the next forty-five minutes, suicide bombers struck, in the Baghdad neighborhoods of al-Baya’a, al-Shaab, and al-Khadra.
This was the beginning of the so-called Ramadan Offensive in 2003, which is the first multi suicide bombing day in Baghdad, where you had five suicide bombers striking separate targets. And it was really akin to the Tet Offensive in some ways. Obviously quite different in other ways. And it announced, really… Still, in Washington, Rumsfeld and others were denying that a guerilla war was going on, or an insurgency, and this, in a sense, made it impossible for them to deny it any longer.
The day before there had been a shelling of a hotel in the Green Zone, this remarkable act of…I mean, it was kind of a brilliant act where this little rocket launcher had been hidden in a generator and left on the street and sited in right under an American machine gun post and blew up part of the building and nearly killed Paul Wolfowitz. Came within a room of killing him. And the Americans later claimed that because his visit has been secret that this was just by chance, but it clearly wasn’t. They clearly had leaks.
In the rhetoric of security, all of these attacks failed dismally. “From what our indications are,” Brigadier General Mark Hertling told Fox News that afternoon, “none of these bombers got close to the target.” In the rhetoric of politics, however, the attacks were a brilliant coup de théÃ¢tre. In less than an hour, four men, by killing forty people, including one American soldier and twenty Iraqi police, had succeeded in dominating news coverage around the world, sending television crews rushing about Baghdad in pursuit of the latest plume of smoke and broadcasting the message, via television screens in a hundred countries, first and foremost the United States, that Baghdad, U.S. official pronouncements notwithstanding, remained a war zone.
Within a week, as members of the Red Cross left Iraq and many of the few remaining international organizations followed close behind, the attackers had set in motion, at the “highest levels” of the Bush administration, a “reevaluation” of American policy. Within two weeks, even as President Bush went on vowing publicly that the United States “would not be intimidated,” he abruptly recalled L. Paul Bremer, the American administrator in Iraq, who rushed back to Washington so hurriedly he left the prime minister of Poland, one of America’s few major allies in Iraq, waiting forlornly for an appointment that never came.
When I arrived in Baghdad, Iraqi insurgents were staging about fifteen attacks a day on American troops; by the time I left the number of daily attacks had more than doubled, to thirty-five a day.
Actually, I think I will stop that there. I wanted to leave some time for questions, discussions, arguments, commentary, whatever. Certainly people are very free to take issue with what I’ve said about Iran, which might be controversial, I realize. And I’d also like to tell a little story from Ramallah, a very different kind of story, just a tiny little memory I had this morning that my friend Bob Hass persuaded me I should tell, and I think he’s already had to go.
But before I do that, are there questions, discussion? The one thing I would like to say is that being a reporter, I mean… It’s funny, you know, when you try to read narrative from reporting it tends to be, or at least from my work, it tends to be violent, because the violence often forms climactic points in the writing, and tends to be the parts that stand alone as stories.
My first book, The Massacre at El Mozote, the publisher on the book tour insisted that I do readings at each spot, and the problem is the only part of the book that actually could be read in one portion was the massacre itself, so I found myself, during three weeks — and book tours are insane operations, as I’m sure Vikram and others in this room know. You get up in the morning at six o’clock, you get on a plane and you fly somewhere, and you then make seven appearances. And I found myself reading incessantly the scene of this massacre, and it drove me nearly mad.
But I have to say that reporting itself I find to be an astonishing thing to do. Very hard, in a way, because it requires a kind of intrepid question-asking part of yourself to come forward that I’m not necessarily terribly comfortable with, but astonishing as an intellectual matter because it does become, if you’re here and you’re reading about Iraq or one of these other places, you don’t realize it, but the reporting that you read, even if you are very closely following it, will tend to be conclusions that are passed on to you by people on the scene.
And when you arrive you confront this blizzard of sense impressions, not only what hundreds of people will tell you is going on, many of their versions being diametrically opposed to one another, but just sense, senses, you know, what it looks like. The astonishing look, for example, of Baghdad. In fact, I’m going to read one paragraph about that.
Autumn in Baghdad is sunny and bright. Drive about the bustling city of tan, sun-dried brick and you will hear the noise of honking horns and see crowded markets, the streets overwhelmed by an enormous postwar expansion of traffic, the sidewalks cluttered with satellite disks and other new products flooding into the newly opened Iraqi market. During the last several months, however, a new city has taken root amid these busy streets and avenues, spreading rapidly as it superimposes itself over the old tan brick metropolis: a new grim city of concrete.
It is constructed of twelve foot high gray concrete barriers, endless roadblocks manned by squads of men with Kalashnikovs, walls of enormous steel-reinforced bags of earth and rubble and mile upon mile of coiled razor wire, and studded here and there with tanks rooted behind sandbags and watchful soldiers in combat fatigues. This city has a vaguely postmodern, apocalyptic feel, “a bit of Belfast here, a bit of Cyprus there, here and there a sprinkling of West Bank,” as one network cameraman put it to me.
Many streets, including several of the grand ceremonial avenues of Saddam’s capital, are now entirely lined with raw concrete a dozen feet high, giving the driver the impression of advancing down a stone tube. Behind these walls entire chunks of Baghdad have effectively vanished, notably the great park and building complex that had housed Saddam’s Republican Palace and now comprises the so-called Green Zone — a four-and-a-half-square-mile concrete bunker that has at its heart the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
To enter the palace you must secure, first, an appointment — hard to get, and made immeasurably harder by the fact that most members of the CPA are difficult or impossible to reach by telephone — and then make your way down several hundred yards or sidewalk lined with razor wire. Your journey will be broken by three checkpoints, two military (concrete cordons, sandbags, machine guns) and one civilian.
At two of these you present two identifications and submit to full body searches, standing with your legs parted and arms extended and staring straight ahead, in a ritual I found myself repeating, on a busy day in Baghdad, a dozen times. Finally, after securing an identification badge, you must wait for a military escort to drive you to the palace, where yet another series of checks and searches will be performed.
Inside Saddam’s Republican Palace — his huge likeness in the central atrium is discreetly masked by a large blue cloth — you will find, amid the dark marble floors and sconces and chandeliers, a great many Americans striding purposefully about, some in uniform but many in casual civilian clothing: chinos, jeans, sport shirts. They look bright, crisp, self-assured, and extremely young; they look, in other words, like what they are: junior staffers from Washington, from the Capitol, the departments and various agencies and think tanks. After all the combat fatigues on the city streets, it is a bit of a shock to find this great horde of young American civilians secreted in Saddam’s marble-lined hideaway, now become Baghdad’s own Emerald City.
Anyway, I was saying that the astonishments of reporting have to do, I think, with sort of perceiving these things, having them come upon you in this wave, and then trying, when you realize, when you reach this delicious point, that having known exactly what was going on in Baghdad when you were back in the U.S., knowing exactly what Iraq was like, knowing exactly what you thought of it, you reach the point, after a week or so on the scene, whether it’s Baghdad or somewhere else, that you just know nothing.
You realize you know nothing. You have no idea. And that’s a point to reach that is gorgeous. It’s kind of wonderful. That’s worth it all. And then you try to construct out of that nothingness what you think and what you want to write and what you want to describe, so in a sense you’re armed, in a way, with your own ignorance. And it’s what I love most about reporting from these places, I guess, which is to answer my mother’s question why I don’t go somewhere nice for a change. Anyway, I’m very happy to answer any questions or comments, criticisms, commentary. Anything? Yes.
Q: What’s it like to come back to an American government that perpetrates, whether directly or indirectly, a lot of the violence that you cover?
A: What’s it like to come back to an American government that perpetrates a lot of the violence? Hm. Well, I don’t know. You know, I’m an American, so it’s like coming back home. I guess what you’re maybe asking is does it make me change my feeling about the U.S. Is that what you mean, really?
A: Not…I don’t know. It makes me feel that I know more and that… It makes me feel, when I hear a debate, like the one I referred to, over the last week about Iran, that I’m, in a sense, foreign. I tend to marvel a little bit. And maybe, in a sense, it makes me feel wonderment of a kind that I say I enjoy in Baghdad at my own country, in a way.
This particular book, Stripping Bare the Body, the title comes from a quote from a Haitian president who said political violence strips bare the social body the better to place the stethoscope and hear what’s going on beneath the skin. He was making an observation that if you cover wars, revolutions, coups, if you look at these things and examine them, you understand how the society works in a way you don’t usually, or you wouldn’t usually, or that’s harder during peacetime or during time of relative peace.
And I think, actually…I mean, the book actually goes Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq and then to essentially the war on terror, and a great deal of the last part is about torture, which I haven’t really read anything about tonight. But I think that one of the things that’s happened to me — Kierkegaard said we live life forward, but we understand it backward. We understand it looking backward.
And when I look backward, I think, well, a lot of the work I did was, in a sense, preparation for understanding how the U.S. could, during the war on terror, officially torture, how it did that. And how not only that, but no one…I mean, essentially we’re living with it. It’s officially disclosed. Previous officials have publicly admitted it, including George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and nothing, though it’s very obviously violated the law on a very large scale, very large scale, nothing is being done about it.
And we have one political party, one major party, one of the two, that has a very clear position on torture, which is they’re for it. The Republican Party, they don’t call it torture, of course, but they’re for it, enhanced interrogation. And the Democratic Party has taken a typically powerful position in saying that they’re not quite sure what they think about it.
So I think perhaps returning to the U.S. after covering these various stories and writing about the U.S. more — and I’ve always written about American politics, too — seems a kind of training period, in a funny way. But it just happens to have worked out that way. I guess it doesn’t make me feel anti-American or anything like that, but it certainly gives me a somewhat deepened understanding, and I kind of marvel.
I marvel, I look in wonderment, like I say, at the debate over the last week. Wonderment is really the…I think, wow, hasn’t everybody been here for the last ten years? We’re talking about attacking Iran. I mean, is that really…? Not that I think it’s going to happen at any time soon. Anyway. Any other…? Yes.
Q: What is your understanding of why nuclear missiles or any form of nuclear [weapon] has not happened anywhere that we know about? Given the [nature] of the human species, I cannot imagine why it hasn’t happened so far.
A: Well, the U.S…. I mean, of course, the first answer is that they have been used. They were used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killed a quarter million people. And we often kind of put that in a separate category, but it’s not. It killed a quarter of a million people with atomic weapons. It is the category. And what happened after that was four years later the Soviets got the atomic and then the hydrogen bomb, so we settled into a… And there were various Americans at a quite high level who wanted a preemptive strike at that time. They wanted that arsenal to be destroyed. After all, Stalin had the bomb. My god, it’s like Ahmadinejad having the bomb.
But we settled into a system that came to be called deterrence in which a kind of logic ruled which is that whatever differences we have, if we can guarantee that if a million of our people are killed, or in the millions, that a million of theirs will be killed, if we can make sure that both systems guarantee that, that you’ll have survivable systems, that no leader will consider it advantageous to launch, that nothing will be worth that. And the system of deterrence, though it came close to failing a couple of times, most notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis, although it didn’t come very close, held. We’re past that now. We’ve gone from—
Q: You’re talking about officials.
Q: Official government. But there’s so much nuclear material everywhere in many, many countries, including Pakistan.
A: Yeah. Well, Pakistan also—
Q: I’m thinking why have not rogue militants done something. I find this quite [puzzling].
A: Well, I think the first answer would be that rogue militants have not had access to these weapons. Pakistan has 80 to 100 warheads. They’re under control of the government. It’s possible the government will be taken over by rogue militants, many of whom are in the government, as a matter of fact, particularly in the ISI, in the intelligence service of the army.
But as yet it does remain very hard to develop and make a nuclear weapon, an atomic weapon also. It takes a fairly large industrial capacity to do it. And up until now, they have been confined to the possession of governments. The Israelis, of course, have a couple of hundred, although it’s absolutely unmentionable to talk about that during the current discussion about Iran, which I found miraculous, an incredible thing, because obviously it relates to…
You know, if, indeed, Iran getting one nuclear weapon is, indeed, an existential threat, the Iranians have been living under an existential threat for a long time from the Israelis, just speaking dispassionately here. And if the Israelis have a couple hundred weapons, which they seem to do, why are these not of deterrent value?
But to go back to your question, I think these weapons are hard to make. Militants of the sort you’re talking about have not had access to them. States who now control them, and I think there are what, eight or nine states who now have them, either officially or unofficially, have not seen it in their interest, in fact have seen it against their interest to supply them to third parties because, in fact, if someone were to explode a warhead in an American city, it would be traceable to Pakistan, if that’s where that warhead was made. That could change, but technologically, that’s the reality now. So I think that’s the answer.
I think it’s conceivable it would happen in the future. The United States and the Bush Administration were very concerned about it in the wake of 9/11, and it’s arguably one of the reasons that the U.S. invaded Iraq, crazy as that sounds. But indeed, they were very concerned about weapons of mass destruction getting into the hands of terrorist groups. And while they were invading Iraq, of course, the North Koreans developed a nuclear capability and added to the numbers. So yeah, it could happen in the future, but it remains very…
I mean, there are also, it should be said, a lot of these so-called weapons of mass destruction, which is a ridiculous kind of category because it names things of very different kinds, from nuclear to chemical to biological. Nuclear is very hard to make. Chemical and biological can be very hard to deploy.
I mean, Aum Shinrikyo, which is a group in Tokyo, in Japan, had very powerful and, you know, biochemical engineers and scientists who made fairly strong chemical and indeed biological toxins, but they had great trouble distributing them. They did attack the Tokyo subway system and they killed five people and injured many, many more, but they’re not so easy…
It was easier to grab airplanes, of course, which was a brilliant coup de théÃ¢tre on September 11, 2001. Anyway, that’s my answer. But no guarantees for the future, obviously. Any other? Yes, sir.
Q: Would you advocate bombing Syria at this point?
A: Would I advocate bombing Syria? I think it’s a very hard question. I think that Syria is an extremely complicated place. And you’ve put your finger on the sort of crossroads between my humanitarian concerns and what I’ve learned about the complications of intervention. And those things cross rather terribly, because I would like to answer that with a full-throated yes. But I’m not quite sure who the U.S. would bomb and what the consequences would be.
I think that one thing perhaps I’ve learned in the last quarter century or so is that uprisings last and succeed when the people do them, not when the U.S. does them. And the Syrian people have demonstrated an astonishing courage, the like of which I’ve never seen, ever.
They have been marching… I spent the fall, as I mentioned, in Palestine, in Ramallah, and teaching in East Jerusalem at Al-Quds University, and there was a lot of — and there is a lot available on YouTube of video of these revolts. And the Syrians, in Daraa, in particular, which is the southern town where the revolt started, essentially have been marching in their thousands, with some of them in the front rows with papers pinned to their shirts with red spots on them, blotches to show where the snipers should shoot, and it’s an incredible thing.
But what should the U.S. do, what should the West do? There have been proposals to establish humanitarian corridors, so-called safe areas near the Turkish border, which essentially means… You know, safe areas…I described to you Sarajevo, which was a safe area, so the term safe area is a kind of awful term. But that would be one way to show Western support for organizing this…for helping organize and helping support this revolt.
The problem is that the groups who are rebelling are diverse, and to some extent are at one another’s throat. Syria, even though Libya was an immensely complicated tribally, it’s a much smaller country when it comes to population. It’s six million. Syria is about 20, 21 million. And though Libya had many different tribes and a complicated tribal history, Syria has extraordinary sectarian divisions, including the fact that the government is Alawite, which is a kind of Shi’ism.
And it means that it’s very much a minority government, as, by the way, the Suni government was in Iraq. And the problem with such governments is, in the face of revolts, they fight like hell because they feel that if they lose they will lose everything. There is no tradition of a loyal opposition. Which is one of the extreme mistakes the U.S. made in Iraq as well, in not seeing that as the key political problem, to sort of protect the Sunis and bring them into the political process.
So the political problem is very complicated, and the opposition, who are Suni, mostly, and are supported by Suni states like the Saudis, make no bones about the fact that they not only want to take power, they’d like to kill a lot of the Alawi. So this is very complicated. I think it could play out over a longer period. There are international, geostrategic elements, too, that I haven’t mentioned, which is Iran, most obviously, is a key ally of the Shia Bashar government, and Saudi Arabia is the opponent.
And I think the U.S. should try to support the revolt with humanitarian areas, with safe areas. I’m sure now that the U.S. is probably, if it isn’t already arming the rebels, it’s probably on the way to doing it through third parties. But that is to take on a kind of responsibility that could be very terrible. I mean, it could well be that this revolt won’t succeed. I think it will, eventually. But I think a lot of Syrians are going to die because it’s a fairly ruthless government and it’s well armed, and it has strong backers, the Russians and the Chinese, in particular.
So I wish there were an easy answer to it. I wish I could just say absolutely the U.S. should bomb and move people away from homes, bomb the tanks around homes. But then the question is, well, then what? So the tanks would move back.
There’s another problem, too, which is Israel is very — which is our main ally, by far, in the area, on the border — seems to be very ambivalent about the Bashar regime and about whether they want to see it fall. So I’m sorry I can’t give you a more decisive answer to your question. It pains me that I can’t. Any other? Yeah.
A: What was your question in particular?
Q: Is it in a way like Iran being made… Like another argument, like a huge argument to sideline another issue which [unintelligible].
A: Well, the question of Palestine, which you’re asking about, actually had the ignominy of being treated in a New York Times front page article today, the sense of which was what’s happened to the Palestine question. So the news was that we’re not talking about it, which is a remarkable point. It also had, of course, a picture of an Israeli soldier with, I think, an M-16, actually, firing against rock-throwing or stone-throwing kids.
I agree with you that this issue has fallen away, particularly in American politics, not just around the world, but when it comes to American politics it’s astonishing that Barack Obama is attacked as having thrown Israel under the bus, as Mitt Romney has rather memorably called it, and people really seem to believe he’s been — some people seem to believe fervently that President Obama has been bad for Israel, which is something I find really inexplicable, I really do, because it seems to me he’s been probably the strongest supporter of Israel of any president we’ve had.
He’s raised the amount of aid, both military and civilian, going to Israel quite dramatically. He has not pressed, beyond an initial press for a ten month settlement freeze, for any movement in the peace front, for any concessions from the Israeli government. His mention of going back to the ’67 borders with land swaps, which has been so controversial, is in fact the stated policy of the U.S. government. So I find it somewhat bewildering, this impression of him among some people, not just Republicans, that he’s so anti Israel; I just don’t understand it.
My impression about the peace process in general that you’re asking about, having lived for a half year in the region, and in Ramallah, in the so-called capital of Palestine, is that it’s frozen, and the Israelis are not politically able to make concessions with this government. It’s a right wing government. The foreign minister of this government, Avigdor Lieberman, has an official policy when it comes to the Palestinians. It’s called transfer. That is, he wants to expel them. So I think that this government is politically unable to make concessions.
Meanwhile, the Oslo Accords were signed in ’93 and ’95, nearly 20 years ago. You were supposed to have an independent Palestinian state in ’99, 13 years ago. When they were signed, you had about 80,000 Israeli settlers on the West Bank. Now you have 350,000. So it’s as if the two parties are negotiating over a pizza, and one party is holding the pizza and every few minutes is taking a big bite out of it and is then saying, “All right, let’s negotiate,” chomp, chomp.
So I think for that reason most Palestinians simply don’t take the notion of negotiation seriously, and as a consequence they think of their leadership, the Palestinian Authority, the PA, as simply handmaidens of the Israelis — that they’re there, they keep control of the streets for the Israelis, and they don’t do anything. And meanwhile the land is disappearing under settlements. The living conditions on the West Bank are very bad if you have to move around it a lot.
And most Israelis, I think, don’t think about this anymore unless they have to. It’s a bitter issue in Israeli politics, and they’ve just kind of stopped thinking about it, mostly. It should be said also that what I’m saying would be absolutely uncontroversial in Israel. In the United States some of the things I’ve said would be controversial. The discussion here is incredibly narrow. It’s just crazy what makes people mad. If you talk about a one state — I laugh — there’s a phrase “one state solution,” which is extremely controversial if you mention it here. It means the destruction of Israel. But to me there is a one state solution, it exists.
I mean, for 45 years Israel has controlled the West Bank. And I think we’ve probably missed the point now where there can be two states. I don’t know what the result of that will be. But you now have about equal populations of Jews and Arabs between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. The numbers are about equal. And a few million Palestinians have no political rights of any kind, and they’re living in one polity. So what the result of that will be I don’t know, but there is one state, as far as I can tell. I don’t know how there are going to be two. I think it’s reached a tipping point beyond which there are not going to be two states.
A: The skepticism in the Anglo-Saxon media with respect to climate change? Goodness. [Laughs.] I’m afraid you’ve asked a question that I have personal opinions about but no, as it were, professional experience, so I think I’m going to take the better part of valor and not try to answer that. Other than to say reporting, journalism, is affected by politics.
I mean, what I just said trying to answer the question about Palestine, I think that point is implicit in that answer. The idea that journalism is simply this objective thing and so on is not true. It is vulnerable to politics, to political pressure, particularly the pressure of accusations that you’re not objective, ironically enough.
And it is a remarkable thing, when you look at this past summer. The past summer we had this extraordinary weather. There was a drought, the worst in a couple hundred years, in recorded history, in Texas, that made Rick Perry — remember Rick Perry — flee from the campaign back to Texas because the drought was so bad. We had record number of tornadoes in the tornado belt. The previous record was around 200. This past spring we had 600 or more, this astonishing thing.
All sorts of incredible weather. All of these stories you could group under the category of bizarre weather. But none of those stories could be reported as, or connected to, explicitly, the phenomenon called climate change. Why? Because that’s political. And one of the vulnerabilities of journalism is to charges of political bias.
And I think that those who have interests in denying the phenomenon of climate change, and a lot of money is riding on this and so on, have succeeded in — the phrase is “working the ref,” going to a basketball game and yelling and yelling at the ref that “you made a stupid call, you idiot! That was not a foul!” Well, eventually, if you do that enough, the ref might not call the next foul. And I think you see a phenomenon like that.
And again, I have not reported on this myself, but I just say as a reader of the news, you see a phenomenon like that when it comes to climate change, and it’s a very complicated matter. But politics are somewhere in that answer, no question about it. Any other…?
Q: Are you going to get to your Ramallah story?
A: My Ramallah story. Well, I’d be happy to give you my Ramallah story. I’m sad my friend Bob Hass, who’s my morning gym partner, God bless him, wakes me up every morning at 7:40 with, “Good morning. I’m ready if you are,” he says. God bless him. That’s the blessing. One of the blessings of my day. I told him this story and he said you should use that at the end, because indeed it is from another place — Ramallah, a city I love, like the other cities I’ve mentioned, from Port-au-Prince to Sarajevo, to Baghdad, and I would call it “Venus in Ramallah,” and it’s short.
It begins with a scene in a Ramallah apartment, fifth floor, my Ramallah apartment, looking out over the hills over Ramallah, where many high-rises are going up because of what’s called the five star occupation. That is, if we don’t give you the vote, if we don’t give you freedom, if we don’t take down the checkpoints, we’ll pour money in. We’ll let money pour in, actually, from the European community, the U.S. and elsewhere. So you have these buildings going up, most of which are unfinished, they’re shells up on these verdant Ramallah hills. It’s a quite extraordinary sight.
And a friend of mine, a colleague of mine, someone I came to know this fall — she taught Victorian literature, actually, in the English Department of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. And Al-Quds is in Abu Dis, which is part of Jerusalem, but it is divided from Jerusalem by the wall, so outside my window where I worked and where I taught the gray wall stood. And if you wanted to go into Jerusalem, though it had been literally three minutes away by foot, you now had to take a bus, go through checkpoints, and it could take an hour, actually. And most of my students had never been to Jerusalem, though indeed it was right on the other side of this wall.
Anyway, this colleague of mine was…we were discussing gods and goddesses, and we were discussing Allah, and Judaism and Christianity, we were having this discussion, and she walked by this picture window — [laughs] — and I said, you make me think of other gods and goddesses. And she said, which, and I said Venus Calipigia. She was wearing — I don’t want to offend anyone here — but she was wearing extremely tight black tights, which had become fashionable on the West Bank among some very few people, not most, but very few.
It’s amazing the combination of head scarf and tights. It’s an incredible phenomenon. Again, this is under the heading of how marvelous it is to actually go and be bewildered by the complications that you didn’t anticipate. So I said Venus Calipigia, and we went on. And I started working at my desk and she sat down on the couch and started working at her computer. And a few moments later she started to laugh and she started to read a sentence that she had found, which began…
“That was another one of the numerous traits about Nurse Duckett that Yossarian enjoyed. He enjoyed Nurse Sue Ann Duckett’s long white legs…”
Anyway, at that point, and she started to read this quotation — someone, at least, is getting this — that’s from Catch-22. And I started to laugh. And what happened instantly was a kind of strange time phenomenon that happens sometimes, where you get telescoping images back through your history, back through your mind.
And the first of these telescoping images was of myself sitting as a 17-year-old in the great halls of Widener Library of Harvard University, leaning back in an easy chair not unlike one of these, with my feet up on an ottoman, clearly, as I look back at myself at that moment, procrastinating, not doing what I was supposed to be doing at that given time, and reading a particular book, Catch-22, and reaching that very sentence, and then, to the disgust of everyone around me, bursting into laughter.
And the reason I burst into laughter was because my mind, at that moment, as a 17-year-old, had gone backward instantly, the kind of backward lurch or backward transformation that Proust describes so well and so much more elegantly than I am when he talked about the dipping of the Madeleine cookie into the tea and biting into it and finding his whole past revealed, because in that instant my mind had gone back and I was suddenly looking at my father, and I was looking at him from a height down, and I was seeing him in an easy chair, where I’d seen him night after night the whole time I was a small child, sitting in this kind of red easy chair in our living room with his feet up on an ottoman reading a book and laughing.
And he had said to me a moment before — I’d been lying — I was seven, eight years old — I was lying on the carpet in front of him, as I often did, reading my book, probably the Hardy Boys or something, and he had said to me, “Markie, go to the dictionary.” I loved it when he did that. And I got up and I ran to the back of the living room and I climbed up on the window seat, and I climbed up on the shelf, and I climbed up to the bookcase, as you do when you’re seven or eight years old, and I stood there swaying back and forth, and I reached up and I brought down the enormous Webster dictionary, and I pulled it down and I read to him, as he spelled out a word for me, Calipigia, and I read to him — and he hadn’t laughed or anything, he was just asking me the word — I read to him “Cali, beautiful, Pigia, Greek, buttocks, of or having beautiful buttocks.”
At which point my father had burst into laughter, because he was reading that very sentence that Yossarian enjoyed Nurse Sue Ann Duckett’s long white legs and supple, callipygous ass. [Laughter.] And so at that moment I was back seven years old, I was 17 years old, and I was 52 years old in Ramallah with my friend in the black tights, and she was laughing and I was laughing, and I thought this is how I want to remember Ramallah, and this is how I want to bring tonight’s event to a beautiful, perfect and curvaceous end. [Laughter.] [Applause.]
Thank you. Oh, I’m happy to sign things or sign books or talk about other things if you so desire, but thank you very much.
[End of recording.]