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William Fisher: Goodbye to a Year of Ironies

Goodbye to a Year of Ironies

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Columnist

Saturday 06 January 2007

One needs a well-honed sense of irony to truly appreciate 2006. Some of these ironies were funny. Some were embarrassing. A lot were downright tragic. Before we finally consign the old year to the historians, let us recount some of them.

Arguably the most depressing irony of 2006 was that the country to which we claim to be bringing the rule of law turned the execution of a true miscreant into a lynching. We didn't do it - that was the handiwork of Iraq's so-called unity government. But we're getting blamed anyway. This piece of Kafkaesque theater is going to do wonders for our Public Diplomacy programs! Karen Hughes, where are you when we need you?

But there was a lot more.

While we fretted about North Korea's A-bombs and Iran's nuclear ambitions, the Pentagon and the Energy Department chose the first new nuclear-weapon design for development since the end of the Cold War. But not to worry - the new warhead will be safer, cheaper, more secure, easier to manufacture, and never need explosive testing. This latest toy would be the first step toward an entirely new US nuclear arsenal. But it's far from the first step in the perception that America might just have a tad of a double-standard problem in the proliferation business.

Then, there was the irony of Iraqi refugees. Members of Muslim and Christian minorities, as well as doctors, university professors, scientists, people who worked for the US authorities, and just average citizens, fled this "liberated" country in the tens of thousands. But the Bush administration had planned to resettle just 500 of these refugees in the US. As the year drew to a close, the New York Times reported that State Department officials were "open to admitting larger numbers, but are limited by a cumbersome and poorly financed United Nations referral system." The Times cited some critics of the Bush administration as claiming the US "has been reluctant to create a significant refugee program because to do so would be tantamount to conceding failure in Iraq." Someone needs to remind President Bush of Colin Powell's Pottery Barn analogy: "You break it, you own it." Equating refugees with "collateral damage" just doesn't cut it.

Then there were the grotesquely mixed messages being sent to American citizens who happen to be Muslims. The Pentagon and the armed forces, for example, started a big push to recruit more Muslims into the military because of the dearth of Arabic-speakers who understand the culture of places like Iraq and Afghanistan. To win the "hearts and minds" of American Muslims, West Point, the other service academies, and military installations opened Muslim prayer rooms, appointed Imams to serve as chaplains, and got non-Muslim officers and Pentagon officials to celebrate religious events with Muslims. The FBI, CIA, and DHS also continued their campaigns to recruit Arab-Americans as analysts and linguists - and turned down most of the many applicants because they had families and friends in the Middle East. Surprise, surprise!

At the same time, however, Muslims were being harassed, intimidated and attacked not only by wing-nut talk show hosts and many of their fellow citizens, but by people who should know better - like Virginia congressman Virgil Goode. This distinguished gent said Muslims were not welcome in the United States. He told us he believes Muslims "should not be allowed to enter this country and should seek their political or economic aspirations in other countries." This redneck no-nothing attacked a newly-elected member of Congress - Keith Ellis, the House's first Muslim - for using the Koran instead of the Bible for his informal swearing-in. That Koran, by the way, belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Goode then administered the coup de grace by tying American Muslims to the urgency of building a very tall fence to seal off our borders and prevent a tsunami of illegal Muslim immigration.

The xenophobia didn't apply only to people like Goode. Our government, too, was more than complicit. "Terrorist" Maher Arar, who was "rendered" from Kennedy Airport to ten months in a torture chamber in a Syrian jail, then acquitted after a two-year Canadian investigation, remained on America's famous no-fly list, along with Senator Ted Kennedy, aging grandmothers and numerous infants. He is barred from traveling in the US or even flying over US airspace - but the State Department won't tell him why. Then, the Department of Homeland Security had to apologize to a Muslim traveler who was unnecessarily strip-searched at the Pinellas County Jail and held in a maximum-security cell for two days, after being detained at Tampa International Airport. And six Muslim-American Imams were removed from a US Airways flight in handcuffs after a passenger complained to a flight attendant that they were acting "suspiciously." They had prayed in the airline's waiting room before boarding their flight.

Another mixed message came from Christian military officers who continued their proselytizing at the Air Force Academy, despite the findings of a special investigative panel that promised to clean up the Academy's act. Mikey Weinstein, an Academy graduate, called for an investigation into several officers who appeared in a promotional video for a Christian organization while in uniform. Weinstein said evangelistic efforts by Christian officers directed toward their colleagues or subordinates amounted to "coercion" and "fanatical unconstitutional religious persecution."

But my favorite irony has to be the fence caper. It's about the Golden State Fence company, which helped build San Diego's border wall in the 1990s. That fence served as a model for the recently legislated 700-mile border fence because it successfully stopped immigrants from crossing at points along its 14-mile stretch. (However, the fence simply pushed would-be immigrants to more dangerous terrain in Arizona.)

In 2006, company executives pleaded guilty to hiring illegal immigrants. The executives may serve jail time in addition to paying nearly $5 million in fees. Their attorney told NPR that the case proves construction companies need guest workers.

There were many more ironies in 2006, too numerous to recount here. But don't despair; we're likely to have an even bigger crop at the end of 2007.


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.

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