Thursday, November 06, 2003

ClarkWatch: The Generalissimo Goes to War

As our favorite generalissimo Wesley Clark unveils his plans for America's future, his campaign bogs down in contradiction and incoherence. Case in point: Clark's latest proposal to "win" the war in Iraq.

First, Clark claims that we have no business in Iraq because Saddam Hussein never posed an "imminent threat" or "danger" to the United States. However, he also says:

Saddam Hussein did pose a national security challenge. There is no dispute about that. He was in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. If he didn't still have weapons of mass destruction, he was trying to acquire them. He remained hostile to his neighbors. But it was clear then and it is even clearer today that Saddam Hussein posed no imminent threat to the region or the world.

Presumably Saddam Hussein posed "no imminent threat" because he had not yet acquired the nuclear weapons he so desperately desired, and may not even have possessed the chemical and biological weapons we (and he) believed he had. Of course, by Clark's criteria, the only way Hussein could pose an "imminent threat" would be for him to acquire these weapons -- bio, chemical, and/or nuclear.

So according to Clark, it was wrong for a US-led coalition to overthrow Hussein while he was only trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction. If Hussein actually had them, then he would have posed "an imminent threat," and we could have invaded.

That we would have had to overthrow either Hussein or one of his sons seems taken for granted, as it probably should be. But Clark says we shouldn't have made the effort until Hussein had the ability to destroy American troops, lay waste to neighboring countries, and wipe out his own subjects. Perhaps this is why Clark's "New American Patriotism" bears the telling acronym of NAP.

Still, we've invaded Iraq, Hussein isn't coming back, and the people there can breathe a little easier. As far as Iraq is concerned, the only real questions involve reconstruction: Do we help, and if so, in what way and to what extent?

According to Clark, Bush should not receive funds to rebuild Iraq until he has "a plan that will work." This issue is effectively dead, now that Bush has his $87 billion. Yet it begs an important question: How does Clark know Bush's plan isn't working? Considering the progress Iraq has made over the past several months -- basic services restored beyond pre-war levels, a new government forming, Uday and Qusai Hussein dead, lingering Ba'athist elements slowly located and placed under arrest, covert forces inching closer and closer to Saddam himself -- you'd be hard pressed to claim that Bush's military strategy is utterly dysfunctional. Clark may not like what the Bush administration is doing, but clearly it's having a positive effect.

To his credit, Clark acknowledges this basic fact, however briefly:

Iraqis have a better future with Saddam Hussein out of power. In many areas, life is improving. It is inspiring to see brave Iraqis working with Americans to rebuild their country.

Of course, with Hussein in power -- as Clark says would be the case, were he in command -- none of this would have happened. The Iraqi people would simply endure more long years of US inaction, while their maniacal dictator slaughtered 15,000 people per month (and tried to obtain new weapons so he could kill even more).

What other bright ideas does Clark have?

Well, the general wants a coalition of nations to supervise our efforts in Iraq. At first this may seem redundant, because we already have a coalition of nations assisting us. Among them are military powers like Britain, economic powers like Japan, and several relatively small nations, mostly from Northern Europe and the former Soviet Bloc. That's not good enough for Clark. He wants a new coalition, consisting of "Europe, the United Nations, Japan, and the Arab World." (Doesn't the "Arab World" sound like a third-rate alternative weekly? I can almost see the front-page headline: "Extra! Jews put baby blood in matzoh balls!")

Naturally, Clark wants his new coalition to feature plenty of United Nations peacekeepers, just like we had in Kosovo and Somalia. You may recall that it was the UN who got us into Iraq, by refusing to enforce its resolutions against Hussein's weapons program. Clark figures the UN resisted because we didn't endorse either the Kyoto Protocol or the International Criminal Court.

Of course, these factors had nothing to do with it. We've learned that France, Germany and Russia were protecting Hussein in return for cheap oil -- one of the many ways Hussein harnessed the UN's oil revenue program, designed to provide humanitarian assistance for the Iraqi people, in order to prolong his own brutal reign. In return for these countries' relentless opposition, Clark will give them a major role in rebuilding Iraq, turning this process into what he calls "a NATO operation."

Better yet, Clark has proposed to restore Iraq's national security by "calling the old Iraqi army to duty." In case you're wondering, this army happens to be the old Ba'athist army, formed and trained under Saddam Hussein's repressive regime. Presumably this army would know a great deal about the terrorist attacks plaguing US troops and relief agencies, since many former officers are leading these attacks. And what better way to rebuild Iraq than to use people responsible for the country's previous oppression? Clark would simply "have thorough background checks, pay generous rates, and appeal to their sense of nationality," then send them off to do their bloody business.

Clark does offer one valid observation: The American military must protect Iraq's borders against further terrorist incursions. But since these borders aren't inherently defensible, that's easier said than done. The general's proposed solution is ludicrous even by his standards: He has proposed that we enlist Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia to help us close the borders. Clark seems aware that all these nations support terrorist activity, though this inconvenient fact doesn't seem to faze the man much. He simply states that we have to work with totalitarian theocracies like Iran and Syria "no matter how objectionable we found their policies or regimes."

If I were a citizen of the newly liberated Iraq, I'd be alarmed at the general's plans: Call out the Ba'athist troops, kiss up to the UN, and turn over the nation to old enemies and Hussein supporters. Clark would have the US abandon successful reconstruction efforts -- which over seventy percent of Iraqis support -- in favor of an international coalition with known supporters of terrorist activity. Then, under his "New American Patriotism," he'll ignore terrorism until it becomes "an imminent threat," with weapons of mass destruction aimed at major cities worldwide.

I suppose there's no better way to appease a wolf than by turning him loose in your hen house. But let me ask you, gentle reader: Is there a worse way?

Alas, the more Clark tells us, the sadder he looks.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Holy Sh*t: Hell House, Judgement House and Jerry Falwell's "Scaremare"

Christian fundamentalists don't need much prodding to let their raging Ids run amuck. All you have to do is make them talk about Hell -- and a brief mention of anything they might dislike will probably do the trick. Since the highest ambition of most fundies is to save lost souls from Hell, a mischievous wag might speculate that Hell, not Christ, is the cornerstone of their faith.

Of course, the best way to save the lost is through relentless psychological warfare. Little boys and girls are particularly receptive targets, and the pastors I knew when I was young seemed to take pleasure in watching them break down. (Perhaps it proved they were doing their job properly.) Kids would turn into quivering puddles on hearing that God really didn't love them, that God hated them enough to throw them into Hell, and that even if God loved them, they couldn't really love God -- certainly not enough to stay out of Hell. Far from being good little children, they were lost, depraved, unforgiven, tainted with inevitable sin, destined to burn forever and ever and ever.

Several far-right churches have started "Hell House" and "Judgement House" programs to bring this disturbing message to Halloween. These Christian haunted houses have enjoyed remarkable popularity -- perhaps because they're gorier, more violent, and more "hardcore" than their tame secular counterparts. Trinity Church of Cedar Hill, a Texas congregation which claims to have invented the "Hell House" concept, uses actual firearms (fortunately, without live ammunition), gallons of stage blood, and elaborate special effects to depict various people committing mortal sins and going directly to Hell. The target audience, as you might have guessed, is older children and teenagers.

In a typical "Hell House" tour, a sarcastic demon guide (wearing either a rubber skull mask or black greasepaint) leads a group of twenty to twenty-five through a series of rooms featuring sinners and their respective punishments. In each room, the tour group views a three- to five-minute skit. One features a girl who bleeds to death after she has an abortion; the demon guide taunts her for "killing your baby," she dies unrepentant, and another demon whisks her off under flashing strobe lights. Another involves a girl who commits suicide -- sometimes, but not always, because she has been raped while under the influence of drugs. The demon guide taunts the poor girl until she shoots herself, and, of course, she is also spirited off to Hell. A Gay teenager dies of AIDS; he goes to Hell. A "school shooting" scene shows two kids taking out their entire high school class before killing themselves; Jesus takes the true believers away to Heaven, and the demon with the strobe lights gets the rest. (Any resemblance to the Columbine school shootings is completely intentional.) This portion of the tour takes about half an hour.

After escalating torments, the Hell Room provides an appropriate climax. Satan appears in the guise of a Goth teenager, and talks about how these particular souls -- burning forever and ever and ever -- have succumbed to his wicked temptation. The damned tell us how awful Hell is, and how they'd have accepted Jesus, gotten saved, and turned from their wicked ways, if only they'd known how awful Hell would be.

The experience isn't over yet. Your tour group is promptly escorted into a room where a youth counselor offers "what may be your last opportunity" to get saved. If you're interested, you get to fill out a few cards, maybe endure some more counseling, and get prayed over. It's an assembly-line approach to conversion, with the idea of processing as many sinners as possible. Hell Houses across America claim to have "saved" tens of thousands of souls each year -- though most of these "conversions" are obtained under extreme duress.

Although "Hell Houses" began in the mid-'80s, and milder, less issue-oriented "Judgement Houses" emerged roughly a decade later, it was Jerry Falwell who created the granddaddy of Christian haunted houses: Scaremare, in Lynchburg, Virginia. This one began in the late 1970s, when Falwell brought his evangelical agenda to a community Halloween event. But unlike its graphic "Hell House" progeny, Scaremare is civil, even restrained. For the most part, it looks and feels like a typical haunted house, with themed rooms, narrow hallways, and plenty of dark corners for kids to jump out and yell "Boo!" Falwell's own Liberty University currently runs Scaremare, and I'm told that hundreds of students take part. It is quite an elaborate production.

But Scaremare hasn't gone national, like "Hell House" and "Judgement House"; it remains strictly a Lynchburg-area event. This year's model was subtitled "Fear Reloaded," even though as far as I could tell, it never addressed the Matrix theme. There were still a few interesting moments: In one room, the phrase "Clowns will eat me" was scrawled on one wall, which indicates that today's college fundamentalists have a passing acquaintance with Alice Cooper. Other rooms included an insane asylum, a creepy country wake, and an homage to horror-movie icons Freddy Krueger and Jason. For the most part, it was nothing unusual.

The only thing that makes Scaremare a Christian entertainment per se is its strange denouement. As you exit the house proper, you see a living tableau of Christ writhing and wriggling on the cross. One suspects the nice-looking college student up there hasn't actually been crucified, if only because it would be bad for recruitment. Your group is then escorted into a tent, where another college kid gives a five-minute spiel on salvation, says a few quick prayers and sends you on your way. And that's it. Psychological warfare has been kept to a minimum -- no kids have been reduced to bawling wrecks, and the people touring the house with me seem to have had a rather wholesome good time.

Needless to say, this isn't the evangelical Christianity I know. At your average far-right Christian church, you can hear a great deal on the nature of Hell, the various torments and punishments there, why God sends people to Hell, how not to go to Hell, why we should all be afraid of Hell, and so forth. Falwell has been known to wax eloquent on the subject of eternal torment. So why doesn't his haunted house have a little more brimstone in it?

Maybe Jerry thinks that Halloween is a time for a small, good-natured scare. The real fright show he saves for Sunday morning.

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