Thursday, July 27, 2006

Khalid The Jihadi

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The practice of meditation takes us on a fabulous journey into the gap between our thoughts, where all the advantages of a peaceful, stress-free, healthier, fatigue-free life are available, but are simply side benefits. The paramount reason for doing this soul-nourishing meditation practice is to get in the gap between our thoughts and make conscious contact with the creative energy of life itself.

---Wayne Dyer

Better not to begin. Once you begin, better to finish it.

---Buddhist saying

Death is our eternal companion. It is always to our left, at an arm's length. It has always been watching you. It always will until the day it taps you.The thing to do when you're impatient turn to your left and ask advice from your death. An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if your death makes a gesture to you, or if you catch a glimpse of it, or if you just catch the feeling that your companion is there watching you.

---Carlos Castaneda

This week I caught up with an issue of Rolling Stone from December. It's the HipHop issue, and I sort of put it away as not immediately essential to my particular musical addictions. But inside, it turns out, was lurking an article that slowly has emerged as absolutely required reading. In fact, Google this morning is showing a few university courses this fall will be studying it. Military bloggers reference it too. It's about Khalid (not his real name) who spent the last 15 years fighting as a mujahideen in the name of Islam. A volunteer from his native Yemen to help drive the Russians out of Afghanistan (why? what were they doing there? guess who paid him...and what could their interest be?) Khalid recounts his story of how things changed with 9/11 and what it was like to fight Americans in Iraq. His mission, as a paid soldier, has been to help Arab countries drive foreign invaders from their he sees it. What did you say the difference is between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? And within a dozen years can these labels describe the same man? The same nation?

The author of the article is Tom Downey...and it's his first for Rolling Stone. An interesting guy, with apparently no political ax to grind, he made a name for himself with a book about firemen in New York a year before 9/11. Mostly he writes travel articles. There's a photo and bio here~~~,31,46 The picture illustrating this piece is of Khalid, with ceremonial dagger.

The Insurgent's Tale

Khalid had been in Iraq for only a few weeks, but he was already sick of the place. It wasn't the missions that bothered him. He was fighting alongside a small group of Saudis, and they were consummate professionals when it came to jihad, completely focused on the lightning-fast attacks they staged each day on the foreign invaders. The ambushes usually lasted no more than five or ten minutes, but Khalid reveled in the chance to hit the streets and fire off his AK-47 at the American soldiers and their allies, four grenades strapped to his waist so he could kill himself if captured.

After the attacks, however, Khalid and the other fighters were confined to safe houses in Mosul and Haditha -- dark, dank places with no hot water or electricity. The biggest problem was the Iraqis, the very people he was there to help. Sometimes it seemed as though there were double agents everywhere, checking him out on the street, trying to overhear him speaking the Yemeni dialect that would betray him as a foreigner, all so they could pick up their cell phones and call in the Americans, maybe even collect a reward. That made this jihad more dangerous and unpredictable than the other wars Khalid had fought in -- Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia, places where they were often treated like heroes. When they weren't out on missions in Iraq, he and the Saudis were forced to stay in the safe house, the shades pulled down, with only a well-thumbed copy of the Koran and five prayer sessions a day to break the monotony.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a pillar of strength to the insurgents. Khalid knew him from a decade and a half ago, when they were fighting the Soviets and their proxies in Afghanistan. But now, meeting al-Zarqawi in Mosul, he was amazed at the changes in his old comrade. Back then al-Zarqawi was an ordinary foot soldier like Khalid. Now, flanked by two bodyguards and barking orders with fiery determination, he was the most wanted man in Iraq, an Islamic militant with a $25 million price on his head. He had been hailed by Sheik Osama bin Laden himself as "the prince of Al Qaeda in Iraq," but al-Zarqawi still had time for a word with someone from the old days. He and Khalid chatted for a few minutes, recalling their time together in Afghanistan, before al-Zarqawi rushed off to make arrangements with an ally in Kurdistan to try to send some insurgents off to Iraq's northern mountains to fight.

That was more than two years ago, when the insurgency had been looking for fighters like Khalid, veteran soldiers who could be relied on to attack foreign troops with skill and precision. Now, back in Yemen, Khalid heard that they were looking for suicide bombers only. He would watch kids he knew signing up to go to Iraq, unaware that they were being recruited to kill themselves. It made Khalid glad he wasn't in Iraq anymore. Not that he had anything against that kind of mission -- it was a noble calling -- but he thought that a person willing to fight and die should know what he was meant to do before he left home.

At thirty-two, Khalid was beginning to have serious reservations about the course of the insurgency in Iraq. They are overkilling there. Fighting foreign soldiers was one thing -- he had been doing it all of his adult life. But did his faith really sanction killing civilians in their own country? The blood of people is too cheap. Fifteen years in the jihad, fighting in five foreign wars, imprisoned in England and Yemen, enduring the death of a close friend on a mission in Iraq -- enough. The cost was just too high. Although he was proud of all the fighting he had done in the past, Khalid wanted to settle down to an ordinary life as a father, husband and son. He was a soldier fighting a war. But what if the war had no end?

Khalid, who agreed to recount the story of his jihad on the condition that his identity not be revealed, is a Yemeni from the ancient city of Sanaa in northern Yemen. The country is one of the most lawless and drug-addicted places in the world. Despite a recent government crackdown, hand grenades are laid out alongside fresh produce at street-side markets, and sources estimate that there are at least 10 million guns in circulation in a country with a population of 20 million.

Social life revolves around qat, a leafy, reddish-green plant that contains amphetamine-like substances. Eighty percent of adult men in Yemen chew regularly, and important political and business decisions are routinely made in the mafraj, a room in many homes specially designed for chewing sessions. The leaf combines the talkative affability of pot with the drive of speed. First comes euphoria and intense sociability -- not ponderous, marijuana-induced ramblings, but a deep appreciation of the flow of conversation. In this stage, five hours can pass in what seems like ten minutes. Next comes reflective quiet -- a comfortable silence descends as people look inward, contemplating the contents of their minds. The final stage is depression and insomnia -- it's not uncommon to see solitary cloaked figures roaming the streets at night, waiting for the effects of the drug to pass. On average, Yemeni men spend about a third of their income on qat, and commerce in the leaf accounts for a third of the nation's GNP.

I met Khalid at a qat chew in the mafraj of a friend. The room was hot and stuffy, the way chewers like it, and each man in the room was identically posed: left knee up and right arm resting on a cushion. Cold bottles of "Canada" -- the Yemeni term for water, based on the market dominance of Canada Dry -- were distributed all around. The room was clean, but people were already beginning to litter the floor with leaves or stalks too thick or firm to chew. After a few hours, the middle of the room would be blanketed with a thick green carpet of discarded qat.

Qat sessions usually begin with a raucous flow of conversation. But Khalid was quiet, smiling at jokes, carefully pruning his stalks, venturing little. When he finally spoke, he told me that he had just been let out of a Yemeni prison. I asked him why.

"I was arrested as a terrorist," he told me in English, with a trace of a working-class British accent.

Late one night, he went on, an undercover anti-terrorism squad had dragged him away from his family's home in a comfortable, middle-class neighborhood of Sanaa. He was locked up and questioned repeatedly by Yemeni police in the presence of American agents. To curry favor with the Bush administration, Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Salih, has arrested hundreds of suspected terrorists, imprisoning almost everyone who returns to Yemen with a Syrian or Iranian stamp in their passport -- prima facie evidence that they fought in Iraq. Khalid was released after thirty days when a family friend posted a large bond to ensure that he would stay out of trouble.

At this point, a friend at the qat chew hissed at Khalid in Arabic: "Why are you telling him this? Don't talk about these things."

"I have nothing to hide," Khalid told him. He then proceeded to recount the extraordinary story of his fifteen years fighting as a foot soldier in the jihad. Although it is impossible to independently corroborate every detail of his tale, other Yemenis confirmed Khalid's long, frequent absences from Yemen, his presence at training camps in Afghanistan and his imprisonment in Yemen by the anti-terrorism police. His passport contains entry stamps to Syria that match the dates he said he had gone to Iraq, and the account he gave of his arrest in England mirrors one reported by police in the U.K. around the same time. Moreover, the details Khalid gave of fighting in relatively obscure battles in Bosnia, Somalia and Afghanistan match events that actually took place. In the broad strokes of his story, at least, he appears to be telling the truth.

Khalid is not an ultraorthodox, unbending Muslim. Although he meets to chew qat wearing his Yemeni dress cut midcalf, in the style of an Islamic purist, he also wears button-down shirts and European hiking boots. He has lived in England for years and has befriended Westerners. Slight and handsome, he has the quiet charisma and modesty of the guy who is elected class president based on his low-key appeal. In short, he is not the kind of enemy we have been led to believe we are fighting. He harbors some of the same doubts that our own soldiers have about what brought them to fight and, perhaps, to die, in a place so far from home. To hear a polite and thoughtful man talk casually about his friends in Al Qaeda is to have the whole enterprise reduced to a more fragile, human scale. It is to see this war for what it is: a battle between men filled with contradictions, inconsistencies and weaknesses -- not a mythic struggle between our supermen and their ghosts.

Khalid's jihad began with a videotape he viewed at a mosque in Sanaa in 1989. He can still remember the anger he felt when, at the age of sixteen, he watched that footage of Muslim brothers and sisters being slaughtered in Afghanistan. A friend of his had died fighting there -- a martyr promised the rewards of paradise. Khalid didn't think much about his own decision to follow his friend into battle; it was the natural, instinctive thing to do. He had seen what the Russians were doing to the brothers, as Khalid calls his fellow soldiers in the holy war. His best friend had stood up to them and died. Now it was his turn.

Yemen is pious and militant, and it has supplied many thousands of the young men who have filled the front lines of jihad, fighting for their faith from Afghanistan to Iraq. The country is the ancestral home of bin Laden, whose father was a one-eyed Yemeni dockworker, and among the few people successfully prosecuted by the Bush administration on terrorism charges were the "Lackawanna Six," Yemeni Americans from Buffalo, New York, convicted of attending an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, and Sheik al-Moayad, a cleric from Sanaa convicted of conspiring to support terrorism.

There was nothing in Khalid's childhood to suggest that he would wind up joining the jihad. His father was a moderate Muslim with a steady job as a civil servant in the Yemeni government. Khalid worried that he wouldn't be able to get a passport or leave the country without his father's permission. But the recruiters for the Afghan war were acting with the support of the Yemeni government, and within a few weeks, whether or not his father liked it, Khalid had a brand-new passport stamped with a visa for Pakistan.

The final hitch was that a close relative of Khalid's worked at the Sanaa Airport. Khalid feared that an airport clerk might recognize him and alert his family. The recruiters got around that by driving him directly onto the tarmac. Khalid climbed aboard the plane to Pakistan without even passing through immigration.

The reality of jihad, Khalid quickly discovered, was very different from the images presented on the videotape. When he finally made it into Afghanistan, he spent his first night near the front. That evening, a soldier who had been killed was brought back for burial by the mujahideen. Khalid didn't know the man, but seeing his body terrified him. "I'm scared," he told a friend. "I just want to go home."

"Everybody feels like that at first," his friend said. "But soon you won't be scared."

Khalid fought in Afghanistan for two years. He learned to use his weapon, to fight, and to pray with the precision and punctuality of the Salafis, the Islamic purists who were driving the holy war. It was a harder, less forgiving kind of Islam than he had known in Yemen, but its rigidity gave him the strength and discipline he needed to survive as a homesick kid at war in a foreign land. He had arrived in Afghanistan at a pivotal moment. The war against the Soviets was giving birth to a new breed of Arab fighters known as "Afghan Arabs." It was there that the seed of allegiance was planted for the thousands of young men who had flocked to the mountains of the Hindukush to help fight the communists. Afghanistan represented the birth of the global struggle. By helping defeat a superpower, the jihadists showed the world the power of Islam. And in the decade that followed, they would spread that war to the rest of the world.

In 1993, after Khalid had returned home from Afghanistan, he began to hear about a war in Europe where Christians were slaughtering Muslims. Stirred by the stories, he went to join the fighting in Bosnia. Again, as in Afghanistan, he was on the side the world viewed as the good guys -- the Bosnian Muslims who were the victims of relentless "ethnic cleansing" at the hands of the Serbian nationalists led by Slobodan Milosevic. The combat was much more intense than the action he had seen in Afghanistan, where the Soviets used superior firepower to bomb them from a distance. In Bosnia, the enemy was right in front of you, and you had to kill or be killed each day. Khalid fought alongside a group called the Green Berets, named not after the American Special Forces but after the color of Islam.

One day, after a year at war in Bosnia, Khalid was on the front line between Tuzla and Zenica, battling Serbian snipers who were shooting into Muslim villages from a nearby mountain. Suddenly, he came face to face with a Serb. The Serb got the jump, firing seven bullets into Khalid's stomach. Bundled up in heavy winter clothing, Khalid at first couldn't even tell how badly he was hit. When he started to peel off the layers around his stomach, part of his guts leaked out into his hands. He stuffed whatever he could back in and lay down on the ground. When a Saudi brother managed to drag Khalid beyond the reach of the Serb snipers, it took three injections of morphine to quiet his screaming. "You must be a heavy drinker," said the medic from Bahrain who administered the shots.

"No," Khalid said. "I chew qat." The medic, who had never heard of the plant, thought Khalid was hallucinating.
It took hours to carry Khalid down the mine-covered trail. When he finally arrived at a triage area at the base of the mountain, he was put with a group of those too far gone to save and left to die.

Soon after, the medic who had given Khalid the morphine arrived and began searching for his patient. He found Khalid lying among the rows of the dead and ordered a Bosnian army helicopter to speed Khalid to a hospital, where he woke up in pre-op. For six months he lived off an IV tube, his intestines hanging outside his body in a sterilized bag. He shrank to skin and bones -- under seventy-five pounds -- until he looked like "an African famine victim." The hunger was so intense, he would claw at his own stomach.

On his way to Saudi Arabia for further surgery, Khalid stopped home in Yemen. When he arrived at the airport in a wheelchair, his father slapped him across the face. "This is all your doing -- tell Sheik Zindani to help you now," he said, referring to a firebrand cleric who had urged Khalid to go to Bosnia. But Khalid received a warmer welcome in Saudi Arabia, where people from all over the country visited him in the hospital, leaving gifts of flowers, perfume and money for a man they considered a hero.

It took Khalid several years to recover from his wounds. In 1996, he joined a group of Arab fighters going to Kosovo, where Christian Serbs were once again menacing a Muslim minority. By the time he arrived, however, the Serbs had already sealed off the country, making it impossible for him to enter. Unable to join the jihad, Khalid decided to move to England, where many of the brothers had settled.

England is the home of one of the largest concentrations of Yemenis in the world; parts of Yemen were long ruled by the British, and thousands of Khalid's countrymen have settled there. When Khalid arrived, he went to see a Palestinian cleric he knew, who helped connect him to the Yemeni community. Khalid settled down to work at a corner store, chewing qat all day while manning the register. The leaf is legal in England, and Khalid's store stocked and sold qat to Yemenis in the neighborhood.

Khalid was twenty-three. For the past seven years, he had been fighting in battles all over the world. He had never been on a date, never kissed a girl, never really talked to a female who wasn't a close relation. So he did what many a lonely guy does when he's stuck in a city he doesn't know very well: He fell for the waitress at the coffee shop.

She was of Irish descent, and she smiled every time she brought him his coffee. Khalid went to a Yemeni friend and explained his quandary: He was in love, but he didn't know what to say.

"No problem," the friend told him. "I'll ask her out for you."The waitress was receptive but confused. "I like him," she told the friend. "But why doesn't he just talk to me himself?"

Things were rocky from the start. On the first date, she wanted to go to a disco, but Khalid refused. Outside a restaurant, he grew angry when a passing man looked at her. "What are you going to do if I walk on the street with you?" she asked. "Fight everybody in the city?"

A couple of dates later came the gifts: three bottles of pricey perfume and a ring -- the ring. He could barely get the words out in English: "I want to marry you."

"Marry me?" She was surprised, amused even. "What's my name?"

"It's hard for me to remember it," he stuttered.

He gave her a week to decide. His gallantry must have won her over, because they were married within a month.

Right after that, the misery began. Khalid tried to control her and force her to wear the hijab, the head scarf worn by devout Muslim women. Their arguments were so loud that neighbors knocked on the door and banged on the walls. He realized the way he treated her was wrong, but he didn't know any other way. They separated, and Khalid got a British passport out of the marriage.

Khalid returned to the only life he knew. This time, his destination was Somalia, where a radical Muslim faction was attempting to impose strict Islamic law, known as sharia, on the entire country. Posing as a Red Crescent worker, Khalid bribed a pilot to fly him from Nairobi to the Somali town of Luuq, where he delivered $40,000 in cash to a Somali warlord allied with the Islamic faction. The money was from Arab backers, mostly Saudis, who were using their disposable income to influence the many conflicts that plagued Africa and the Middle East. Their cash not only advanced the cause of Islam -- it also bought allies who might help the struggle in the future.

There were forty Arab fighters in Luuq helping to fight the Ethiopian army, which regularly attacked from across the border. The longer Khalid stayed, the more dire conditions grew. At times the insurgents survived only by eating pure sugar. The brothers eventually organized a counterattack and retook the city. Khalid fought for two days straight, until he and his men ran out of ammunition. Reduced to throwing stones, most of the Arab and Somali fighters were killed. At one point the few remaining survivors were so desperate, they started to dig their own graves.

Khalid escaped, badly shaken but alive, with neither the money nor the means to get home. What do you do when you're on jihad, all the money's run out and you just want to leave? For Khalid and his remaining men, their only chance was to try and get a piece of the forty grand that Khalid had already delivered to the warlord.

"I can't help you," the Somali leader told him. "We need all that money for our fight."

Khalid wasn't a high-school debater; he was a holy warrior, so he did what came naturally: He put a loaded gun to the man's head. "I'll kill you or you'll help us get out of here," he said. "We brought you $40,000. Now you need to help us." The warlord was convinced. Khalid and his fellow insurgents eventually escaped to Yemen by crossing the Gulf of Aden on a dhow packed with goats.

When Khalid finally arrived home, his father was furious. "What the hell happened to you?" he demanded. "Where did you come from?" To calm him down, Khalid promised to stop fighting and start a normal life. But whenever the call came, he answered. In 1999, Khalid traveled to Tbilisi, in Georgia, and tried to get into Chechnya, where the Russian army was slaughtering Muslims. But many mujahideen, he learned, had died trying to walk across the mountains to Chechnya. Khalid was willing to die fighting for his cause, a gun in his hand, but freezing to death on a mountaintop was no way for a soldier to give up his life. He headed back to England, returning to his job as a clerk at the corner store, chewing qat to keep himself alert, always on the lookout for the next opportunity.

In 2001, he got a call from Afghanistan. The brothers wanted him there.

When Khalid arrived in Afghanistan early that year, the Taliban had unified most of the country under the strict banner of sharia law. The ragtag bands of foreign jihadists who had fought the communists were gone. In their place was a sophisticated network of training camps run by Al Qaeda. This was a new age of jihad, a well-organized, well-financed struggle led by Osama bin Laden. Jihad, Khalid discovered, had been institutionalized.

At first, Khalid ran a sort of hostel in Mashhad, deep in the rugged Iranian frontier. The 600-mile-long border between Iran and Afghanistan is difficult to police because of its steep mountains and many trails, and Al Qaeda was taking advantage of the covert passageways, sheltering jihadists at Khalid's hostel before sending them over the mountains into Afghanistan.

That summer, on a trip into Afghanistan, Khalid met bin Laden at the leader's camp near Kandahar. They talked about the course of jihad and the situation in Yemen, a country for which bin Laden had a special fondness -- his father and one of his wives were born there, and Yemen had always supplied some of the best and bravest mujahideen, men bin Laden relied on as his most trusted fighters and bodyguards. Khalid thought jihad should be extended to Yemen, but bin Laden disagreed, saying it would stretch his forces too thin. "There is no justice in Yemen," he told Khalid, "but we can't fight there now."

By the summer of 2001, there was a palpable feeling in the camps that something big was about to happen. Around that time, Khalid ran into an old friend from his days in Bosnia: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani who had risen to prominence as an operational chief of Al Qaeda. Mohammed asked Khalid to volunteer for a mission to the United States or Europe -- his British passport would enable him to slip in and out of a Western country. But Khalid refused. He was willing to fight foreign soldiers invading Arab lands, but he wasn't ready to take the war to America or Europe.

On September 11th, Khalid was near Kabul when a Libyan cleric announced that the World Trade Center had been destroyed. Everyone in the camp exploded in jubilation -- the mood was exhilarating, insane, like Mecca at the height of the hajj. As Khalid remembers it, it was the moment when everything changed. The mujahideen had struck a blow against the West that would never be forgotten. And in the process, they had made themselves the target of the world's only remaining superpower.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan, Khalid saw his most intense fighting in and around Khost. Even with help from a local sheik, the foreign fighters couldn't do much against the American onslaught. One night, Khalid was sleeping in a car near Khost with three other fighters. When he woke up and walked away to relieve himself, the car was blown to bits. Khalid later helped to bury a body he believed to be the wife of Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's second in command. The woman had been killed in a school where many Al Qaeda families had sought shelter from the American bombings.

After a few weeks, as the relentless bombing continued, a message arrived from bin Laden: Any mujahideen who could still travel should return to their home countries. There was no point in dying in Afghanistan. "There was no way to fight a decent war there with the Americans," Khalid recalled. "We hardly ever saw a soldier to fire at." Though the Bush administration believed it had routed the Islamic forces, the mujahideen, in fact, had beat a strategic retreat. American commanders, reluctant to expose ground troops to danger, had relied on a strategy of bombing from above that allowed many Al Qaeda members to slip away, ready and willing to fight again another day.

In late 2001, Sheikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda operational chief, ordered Khalid to guide a group of fifty women and children to safety in Iran, over the same mountains he had crossed to enter Afghanistan. "You know the route," Mohammed said. "Take some families with you." He gave Khalid thousands of dollars to pay for Afghan guides and to take care of the Iranian border guards.

The journey to Iran took two weeks. They trekked across high mountains -- a string of women and children wandering through a remote corner of the world, eating dates, plants and whatever animals they could kill along the way. When they reached Iran, pro-Taliban allies were waiting to shuttle them to safety. For weeks after the trip, Khalid's shoulders ached from carrying so many children on his back.

In the years before September 11th, Khalid and his fellow mujahideen could move around the world with relative ease -- creating fake passports, bribing border police, claiming that they were Iraqi dissidents fleeing the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Immigration officials were a nuisance, but there was always a way around them. Now, returning to England from Afghanistan in 2002, Khalid discovered that even a real British passport couldn't protect him from scrutiny. When he changed planes in Abu Dhabi, the police stopped him, suspecting that his passport was fake. A well-dressed supervisor came out to question him. "What's Marks and Spencer?" the man asked.

"A big British department store," Khalid said. "Look, I'm a British citizen, from Yemen. I'm Shiite. Why would I want to go and help the Taliban? They hate Shiites. I was on a pilgrimage to holy places in Iran." After a few hours they let him go, and he boarded a plane to London.

At Heathrow, he was detained again. British officials asked for his luggage and he told them he had only hand baggage. Strike one. They examined his ticket: one-way from Tehran. Strike two. As he sat on a hard bench in a glass-paneled interrogation room, deathly afraid, he could see officials leafing through his passport in the next room. They kept coming back to one page -- a page that had been doctored in Afghanistan to remove a Pakistani visa. He claimed he had accidentally left it in his pants and then ironed them, but they didn't buy it. Strike three. At midnight the agents handcuffed him, shoved him in the back seat of an unmarked car and took him to a maximum-security detention facility.

They questioned him for five days. As the interrogation continued, however, Khalid came to see that he was safer in England, protected by the country's due-process laws, than many of his brothers detained by the Americans in Afghanistan. Realizing that the police had nothing on him, he denied everything. They finally let him go, unable to hold him without further evidence.

The incident communicated something important to Khalid: The jihadi's life had changed after 9/11. Not long ago he could travel all over the world with impunity; now they were hassling him at Heathrow just because he was flying in from Tehran on a one-way ticket with a piece of hand luggage.

Khalid lived quietly in England for a year and a half, working at the corner shop and praying at a local mosque. Around that time, he befriended a fellow Yemeni who would come to share his passion for jihad: Wa'il al Dhaleai, who was well known in England as a leading tae kwon do instructor and Olympic hopeful.

In 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, it was clear to Khalid where he would next do battle. Getting into Iraq from Syria was no more difficult than dressing up like a farmer and walking across the border with phony papers in the middle of the night. But the fighting was a different story. In the early stages of the war, there weren't many foreign fighters like Khalid in Iraq; the bulk of the insurgency was comprised of native-born Sunnis who simply wanted to drive the Americans from their country. They welcomed the foreigners -- they weren't in a position to be choosy -- but they weren't interested in jihad's broader goal of imposing Islamic law on Iraq.

Khalid quickly discovered that it was impossible to blend in -- Iraqis tend to be bigger than Yemenis, and their body language and dialect are hard to imitate. Shiites were especially quick to report foreign Sunnis to the authorities. Khalid and his Arab brothers had the same problem as the American forces they were fighting: They didn't know which Iraqis they could trust.

Most of the foreign fighters in Iraq were very young. At thirty-two, Khalid felt like an old man. Stuck in their safe houses, the mujahideen had to rely on Iraqi insurgents to report on the movement of American convoys, scouting for an opening that would allow them to attack. Months after President Bush declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq, Khalid was ambushing U.S. forces in the northern city of Mosul. Around the same time, Saddam Hussein's sons died in a fierce gun battle there. That October, Khalid's friend Wa'il also died, fighting the Americans in the town of Ramadi.

After three months in Iraq, Khalid returned to England through Syria. But jihad seemed to shadow him everywhere. One evening, after returning home from work, Khalid heard a helicopter overhead. Seconds later the police kicked in the door, handcuffed him and arrested him on suspicion of terrorism. People on his block couldn't believe that the friendly guy who sat behind the counter at their corner store was an Al Qaeda fighter.

The agents interrogated Khalid about his past. They knew he'd been in Syria. Business, he explained. They knew he'd been detained in 2002 after returning to England from Iran. Shiite pilgrimage. I've never been in Afghanistan. I don't want to go. They knew there were Yemeni fighters being held in Guantanamo who said Khalid had recruited them to train in Afghanistan. Liars. They knew he had spoken on his cell phone to Wa'il, shortly before his friend had died in Iraq. Just a chat.

After Khalid spent a week in prison they let him out, just like they always did. They didn't have enough evidence to keep him. When he was released, his next-door neighbors, mostly white Britons, were there to welcome him home. "I might doubt my own son," one old man said, "but I'll always believe Khalid." Most of the Yemenis and other Muslims who had been Khalid's friends had deserted him when he was arrested, fearing for their own safety. When he saw his British neighbors standing by him, Khalid couldn't help bawling.

After the arrest, Khalid returned to Iraq for two more months in 2004, in part to honor the memory of Wa'il. Living in safe houses, he once again went out on raids against the Americans. The heaviest fighting he saw was in Al Qa'im, where thirty Arabs and more than a hundred Iraqis fought for a week against the Americans. Khalid saw seven brothers killed, mostly from Syria and Saudi Arabia. He believed the insurgents killed about ten soldiers from the other side.

By this time, however, the nature of the insurgency had changed. Al-Zarqawi had succeeded, for the moment, in taking over the homegrown resistance. Many of Saddam's former secret police and Republican Guard were now integrated into cells with jihadists like Khalid. The leadership of Al Qaeda had financial resources and strategic expertise that the Iraqis lacked, and the foreign fighters were more willing to die than the local Sunnis -- and more willing to kill civilians.

Disturbed by the killings, Khalid began to rethink the role of jihad in his life. Would his faith really justify killing his British neighbors in their own country? Would he ever be able to live a normal life? Hearing about Yemenis he knew who had disappeared into the gulag at Guantanamo, he feared he could end up in prison for life, a fate he considered worse than death.

The doubts intensified after he returned home to Yemen and was arrested earlier this year. "Enough is enough," his father implored. "It's time to settle down and stop this stuff." After Khalid was released from prison, he and a group of other Afghan Arabs -- the blanket term for those who fought or trained in Afghanistan -- were summoned to a meeting with Ali Abdullah Salih, the president of Yemen, who was trying to contain the jihadists. In private, Salih called them "my sons" and said he had been pressured by the Bush administration to crack down on them. He also did something seldom acknowledged in the war on terror: He offered to pay them off to stop fighting.

"We will help you get jobs, get married," Salih told the men. "Write down your name and what you want."
Khalid didn't take the money, but he was tempted by the offer. He wanted out of jihad. On a trip back to England in late 2004, he had proposed to a Muslim woman he met through friends. In August, his fiancee and her family visited him in Yemen. He was visibly excited about the prospect of settling down and starting a family. He and his betrothed would go on heavily chaperoned picnics to a park outside Sanaa with their extended families, or visit the home of a close relative. They have never been alone together, and he has never seen her face.

But Khalid can see no way to escape from his past. Like many veterans, he looks back on his years of fighting with nostalgia -- the thrill of battle, the feeling of brotherhood, the steadfast devotion to a cause. But on some days, it feels as if he has no place in the world. He lives in Sanaa, but it no longer seems like home. Every few days he walks down to a storefront calling center and phones his brother in England. He doubts he can ever go back to the life he knew there. He often visited the mosques frequented by the London bombers, and he fears police will arrest him if he tries to return. But if he stays in Yemen, the brothers will keep trying to draw him back into the struggle.

These days, when they come over to his house and try to rally him for a mission to Iraq or Sudan, Khalid looks bored and says that he can't go anywhere now, that it would put his family in Yemen at risk. Even his fiancee's younger brother tried to enlist his aid to join the insurgency in Iraq. Khalid told him he couldn't help. He doesn't want any part of the fighting, but uncertainty might be seen as betrayal. So he keeps silent, and waits, and imagines the day when the war, and all that comes with it, will finally end.

Posted Dec 05, 2005 12:48 PM
©Copyright 2006 Rolling Stone

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Hi-Lo's I Presume

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What you see with your eyes closed is what counts.

---Lame Deer, Lakota sage

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest human battle ever and to never stop fighting.

---E.E. Cummings

What do you want to get enlightened for? You may not like it.

---Shunryu Suzuki

Once upon a time four guys decided to start a singing group, just for the fun of it, as any four folks have done since time began. Creation likes to sing and harmony is one of those things humans stumbled on. It's a gift from God. This story starts in Milwaukee where 2 fellows found themselves singing in the same choir and became buddies. It was the 1940s. Bob Strasen went off to Japan with the Army and led a male chorus there, but Gene Puerling got a job as a disc jockey back home and formed a couple singing groups on the side. In 1951 he moved to Los Angeles, as did lots of musicians from all over the place. There was work there: TV now, as well as movies and record companies. He needed to share an apartment with somebody, and along came Clark Burroughs, a guy with a sky-high voice, impeccable intonation, and a knack for hilarity that got him a few acting jobs too. Clark was from LA, was schooled and even had sung with the Roger Wagner Chorale. Now he was in a sort of novelty quartet called the Encores that sang on Billy May records. Billy was from Pittsburgh, had been in the bands of and arranged the jazz tunes for Glenn Miller and Charlie Barnet, but now had been doing children's records at Capitol and only lately had been convinced to start a dance band and take it on the road. In the Encores was Bob Morse from Pasadena, who came from a wildly musical family, with brothers who played and arranged for Stan Kenton and Johnny Richards. Morse sang baritone in the Bob Eberle crooner style and could solo well. In 1952 Clark and Puerling, who'd been working in a record store, got the idea to start their own group with Bob Morse. Gene would sing bass and he called Milwaukee, since Strasen was back, and talked him into coming to LA to sing tenor. Clark would handle all the notes above that, which was not yet a sound you'd hear out of a man who wasn't in the Ink Spots. Vocal quartets everywhere have a tradition of choosing catchy silly names for themselves and our guys were no different. These were The Hi-Lo's.

They took any work there was for a group that could sing anything with staggering accuracy. Puerling's arrangements were a challenge for singer and listener alike, always switching parts around so you---and maybe they---weren't sure who was singing melody. They were like a group of musical acrobats, which might have been interesting in itself, but the ideas and harmonies were so close and delicious they soon got heard around LA. The West Coast was a place of adventure and new things at the time. Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker and Dave Brubeck were winning audience with the young, and jazz was in the air. Their first break came when Jerry Fielding heard them. Jerry had met Billy May when they both arranged for Alvino Rey's band after the War, and now was working TV directing bands on Groucho Marx and The Life of Riley. He also was in on the organization of a new small record label called Trend that offered The Hi-Lo's a first session immediately. On April 10, 1953, backed by a huge screaming orchestra under Fielding, they recorded a 45 RPM extended play album of 4 songs: They Didn't Believe Me, Georgia On My Mind, Peg O' My Heart, and My Baby Just Cares For Me. Trend made sure it got to DJs all over the country. The same month Sinatra recorded his first sides with Nelson Riddle.

I was 13, living in Jamestown, New York, and listening every day after school to a disc jockey out of Niagara Falls named Joe Rico. Joe loved vocalists and Stan Kenton, who had gotten a theme song written for him and recorded by the band---over the years at least 3 times I think. This was AM radio and Niagara Falls was just far enough away that I had to run extra antenna wire around the ceiling of my room to bring the station in. (My mother began to worry about my strange devotion to this terrible music.) Almost at once Joe began to play The Hi-Lo's, mixed in with the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sides and any jazz from the West Coast. He was also the kind of DJ who'd decide on a favorite out of an album and play it every day. We wanted to hear more from The Hi-Lo's. Where were they? Trend was in trouble already, having concentrated heroically on the DJs but not distribution. The quartet was picked up in late 1954 by another small label called Starlite, and now came their first full album, The Hi-Lo's Under Glass. Fielding was following Billy May into financial disaster by taking a band on the road himself, so the arranger this time was Frank Comstock who was doing most of the charts for Les Brown and His Band Of Renown, a band that STILL may be for hire even today. Comstock would stay with them another 15 years. They made 4 albums for Starlite, which got air play and much admiration through the music industry, but I couldn't find them downtown nor were they on the juke box. They weren't played at the sock hop either, although other small labels were but the music was very different. I began to find myself no longer in the mainstream.

The Hi-Lo's started showing up on TV. There were variety shows and the group had some great routines. They liked to do Rockin' Chair, changing tempos a couple times and very swinging. This wasn't Satchmo and Teagarden swishin' flies 'round their heads. Steve Allen had them on so much they almost were regulars, like Steve & Edie and Andy Williams. They were on Nat Cole's show. Then they were hired for a 39 week run with Rosemary Clooney. It was 1957 now, and since Rosie recorded for Columbia, so should "her group." The resulting 3 albums, with Comstock arranging, hit the charts. These records I could get---and take to parties. But my friends were not sold...especially the girls. This group was keyed awful high, and although the slow ones danced well---when they weren't changing tempos---this wasn't rock n' roll. If I was sitting around with a bunch of guys, we could dig their albums---and even try to sing along, although it really was impossible, not like the Four Freshmen. And they sang novelty numbers that weren't always cool. My Time Is Your Time? Well, the fact was this group, for better or worse, was not into selling popularity. They sang timeless.

In 1958, my high school graduating year, they released perhaps their masterpiece. A stupid title, The Hi-Lo's And All That Jazz, but the arranger was Marty Paich with a collection of the finest musicians still in LA. Paich liked to use Miles' Birth of the Cool instrumentation, so he had French horn and tuba, with 2 trumpets, valve trombone, alto, tenor, and baritone saxes, and a rhythm section of Clare Fischer, Joe Mondragon, and the master, Mel Lewis, on drums. The trumpet solos were handled by Jack Sheldon, Herb Geller on alto, Bill Perkins on tenor, and Bud Shank playing baritone. There were 4 pieces on the album that had no words at all, but ensemble singing by The Hi-Lo's that seems even today practically impossible to perform. However, to the jazz listener the lines are so full of hooks that you can't get them out of your head---even if it's hard to name which tune is which. Here's one of those mysterious albums that is so great it probably won't sell at all. Isn't it strange? Why do some great albums sell a lot and some not any? What constitutes that phenomenon? This was it. it couldn't get any better. The essence was realized...and Bob Strasen quietly left the group.

Now the story turns to struggle, and it's not pretty. I'll spare you details. It's not as difficult as it was for Rosemary Clooney. And it doesn't shift gears into other pursuits, as it did for Doris Day and Tony Bennett. Columbia demanded hit material from its artists. You know it's funny, we think of the 1950s as very straitlaced and buttoned-down, and the 1960s as wide open and ready for anything. But musically the 1950s were very experimental and groups like The Hi-Lo's could try whatever they liked. Now musicians were having to form their own labels to do what they wanted. Everybody from Frank Sinatra to Stevie Wonder and the Beach Boys, who readily credit The Hi-Lo's for showing them the way, started up their own studios. The Hi-Lo's stuck with Columbia for another couple of years, but the records became painful. Strasen's replacement, Don Shelton, was not a bad singer and could do the parts...but the arrangements were aimed at something simpler now. Sometimes they sounded like they were imitating the Freshmen, targeting an audience that would cuddle up with the music. It didn't work, and the singles were atrocious. They even tried Mitch Miller singalong---honkytonk piano and all. It was over in 1964.

Let it be said The Hi-Lo's maintained a freshness and good humor through it all. There were no nervous breakdowns or drugs that I ever heard about. The men remained professional and simply found other work as they could. Burroughs never had any trouble...and you'd still see him on TV or notice his name in the best vocal groups and choruses. Nobody could cut him or do what he could do. Gene Puerling settled for a life of arranging, running a recording group called Singers Unlimited for a while. Those records are collectors items for anyone interested in choral singing. American choruses through this period had not been spectacular. We sing hymns over here. There were the Voices of Walter Schuman, Norman Luboff, the Ray Charles Singers (not THAT Ray Charles) and probably a couple other mood music choirs I'm forgetting. Ray Conniff probably did for Columbia what they were asking The Hi-Lo's to do. But our ability to sing classical music was unheralded, even with Roger Wagner.

A quiet revolution was beginning to happen though. From underneath and within, music education in the 1970s and 1980s was bringing forth choral directors and singers. People that were driven out of the recording industry found themselves teaching classes in small town schools. Some started choirs and bands after hours and maybe recorded something locally. Dale Warland started a choir up north and even commissioned compositions, a choir so good it almost was able to survive up to even this period of our cultural life. Americans learned to sing with the best in the world. No one needed to make excuses about what a young and inexperienced country we far as art was concerned. And if any of the new choirs wanted an arrangement of one of those great American ballads from the 1930s, the directors remembered the name Gene Puerling and called him up. A choir named Chanticleer formed a few years back, I think in the Southwest somewhere. It's a male choir that sings chants and very old music, stuff from Mexico nobody's heard before and things like that, and essentially they specialize in the same vocal range as The Hi-Lo's did. They made an album called Lost In The Stars, of romantic American songs, and if you have it you'll see Puerling arranged some. I guess if we don't have a lot of gold records, we still can talk about influence.

The Hi-Lo's reformed briefly...a couple of times. Once was to record an album for Pausa in 1979 called The Hi-Lo's! Back Again! Here the huge and wailing band is that of Canadian Rob McConnell---which is another story of someone brilliant and wonderful who tried so hard. About half the record is material you may remember from earlier days, but the other half is new, including an arrangment of When Sunny Gets Blue that brings me to my knees every time. They got together once more in the early 1980s I think with the McConnell band to do one of the festivals in California. Everytime I've heard them they sound perfect. They weren't really ahead of their time. Time won't ever catch up. Bing Crosby said, "These guys are so good they even whisper in harmony." The Hi-Lo's celebrated and carried forward a tradition in American popular music, really transferring it as a group into jazz for the first time. Others were coming along with the same ideas, but nobody did it with such precision and artistry. They set new benchmarks that people who know about them still are striving for. CD reissues of The Hi-Lo's are not easy to find, and if you go to a site like All Music Guide you won't see them well or adequately reviewed. has a tremendous amount of information (that might have been good if I'd read before I wrote this) plus downloads and a juke box so you can hear them. I also learn unfortunately that both Morse and Strasen have passed away. Maybe this little essay of gratitude and admiration will get you to listen...and better yet start to sing.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Laying Lay To Rest

SAYING GOODBYE Former President George H. Bush pays his respects Wednesday to Enron founder Kenneth Lay, who died of heart disease July 5 while vacationing in Aspen, Colo. Lay faced sentencing this fall on his fraud and conspiracy convictions which led to the collapse of Enron in 2001. Bush did not speak at the service at the Houston church. by Picasa

Do not arouse disdainful mind when you prepare a broth of wild grasses; do not arouse joyful mind when you prepare a fine cream soup.


Only our own searching for happiness prevents us from seeing it. It is like a vivid rainbow which you pursue without ever catching it, or a dog chasing its own tail. Although peace and happiness do not exist as an actual thing or place, they are always available, and accompany you every instant.

---Gendun Rinpoche

Life, we learn too late, is in the living, in the tissue of every day and hour.

---Steven Leacock

Special Reports
Bring me the head of “Kenny Boy” Lay: Another convenient death invites new investigations of Enron-Bush crimes
By Larry Chin
Online Journal Associate Editor
Jul 10, 2006, 00:38

Kenneth Lay, world-class Enron criminal, long-time Bush family friend and crime ally, was pronounced dead on July 5, allegedly of a heart-related condition.

Lay’s name can now be added to the list of dubious Enron-related deaths, which include the alleged 2002 shotgun suicide of Enron Vice Chairman Clifford Baxter (also see analysis here, and here).

Lay’s hasty exit, which comes as he faced 45 years of prison for conspiracy and fraud charges (the barest tip of the iceberg of his true crimes), has sparked rampant speculation. Initial mainstream reports on the cause of death have been confusing at best: “heart attack," “heart failure," and “heart disease” are distinct and different conditions.

Lay, who was reportedly depressed and embittered, has now been conveniently removed before receiving punishment (elite criminals rarely get what they deserve). Charges against Lay and his estate may be conveniently tossed (leaving his squirreled assets available for new uses). The Bush administration, and Congress, is conveniently protected from any possibility of a damning testimony or revelation.

Lay’s supposed demise, however interesting, is ultimately irrelevant. Far more important is the fact that Enron is still an open criminal case: the true crimes of Enron remain unaddressed.

More importantly, the apparatus that Ken Lay and Enron set into motion is alive and well. It still shapes the fabric of daily geopolitical life.

Ken Lay’s living legacy in our faces

Lay, affectionately named “Kenny Boy” by the Bushes themselves, has in recent years gone from a leading Bush policy architect to the family’s number one persona non grata. From a Wall Street darling, to a pariah and the poster child of malfeasance, shunned by those whose pockets he once lined.

His public treatment notwithstanding, the Bush administration, and the New World Order’s inner circle, must privately worship Lay for the way he wielded Enron as a geostrategic weapon of mass destruction. Consider what Lay has left the world:

1. Lay and Enron not only helped create the Bush administration’s energy and war policies; it brought them nightmarishly to life, in every corner of the planet. Ken Lay’s fingerprints can be found, today, in every resource-rich hot spot that Enron infiltrated and conquered, from Central Asia and India, to Colombia and the Far East. The invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as plans to control domestic energy supplies and prices (and the lives of Americans) are a direct result of Ken Lay’s machinations.

Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force, the infamous and secret US National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG), the probable “rosetta stone” of 9/11 that documents the motives behind the Bush administration’s world energy conquest, has remained the subject of intensive and illegal stonewalling. Ken Lay was there: official memos have amply documented Lay’s direct links to Cheney and Cheney’s energy plan.

2. The practices pioneered by Enron and pushed to spectacular and creative extremes -- financial fraud, pro-forma accounting, money laundering, offshore funneling of illegal monies, shell companies, “off the books” transactions, energy gaming, etc. -- continue to be quietly used by corporations everywhere. It is business as usual on Wall Street.

3. Globalization, the brand epitomized by Enron, thrives. Multinational corporations continue to function as quasi-military-intelligence arms of the US, and other allied predatory governments, working alongside the intelligence agencies and militaries themselves. Witness the operations of Halliburton, DynCorp and AIG.

4. The financial institutions, banks and investment houses that assisted Enron in its schemes, domiciled in the US as well as offshore, continue to feed like engorged tapeworms from trillions of dollars of looted funds. Perhaps you still bank with one of these institutions. Perhaps your pension fund is under the control of one of them now. You can thank Ken Lay for that.

5. The manipulation of energy and the fleecing of consumers also continue to this day, in more shaded and sophisticated forms, as does “deregulation." The occasional cries of foul from certain politicians in victimized regions has changed nothing. As energy prices soar, as Peak Oil and Gas makes itself felt in earnest, and new “energy crises” erupt, the ghost of Ken Lay will be there, grinning. He -- it -- still presides over this nation’s energy grids and energy trader’s “gaming” rooms.

6. Enron is not dead and buried, any more than BCCI was ever destroyed. There is no cause for celebration. The Enron corporation itself even lives on (as does BCCI) in the form of renamed, acquired and merged entities.

The Enron players hiding in plain sight

Legions of politicians fed at Enron’s trough, Republicans and Democrats alike. The same members of Congress who received fat Enron checks are still in Washington.

The George W. Bush administration, that Enron helped install and push into power, has two more years to expand its world war, seize remaining energy supplies, squeeze profits from Peak Oil for their own constituents, and deepen the militarization of the United States.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governor of California. His direct Enron connections scarcely mentioned, or even acknowledged. He will likely be re-elected (or re-selected) this fall, continuing the Republican plunder of California -- not ironically the target of Enron’s first crimes in 2000.

The former chairman of Enron’s finance committee, Herbert "Pug" Winokur, the wolf in the Enron fold, is still out there, untouched. As noted by Michael C. Ruppert in Crossing The Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil:

“Aside from playing a major role in the looting of Russia, Harvard University also seems to have deep connections into the domestic economy of crime. Catherine Austin Fitts connected the dots in a 2002 article which told us that not only had Winokur chaired the Enron finance committee and escaped federal scrutiny, he was also a lead investor in, and creator of, a company called DynCorp (now CSC-DynCorp) that has lucrative vaccine and biowarfare contracts . . .

“So ubiquitous is DynCorp that we will see its hands all over the map in connection with 9/11 and the ruling of America. DynCorp is everywhere. It manages the Congressional telephone system. Along with Lockheed-Martin, it does the computerized bookkeeping for a dozen federal agencies including the DoD and HUD, which have lost (or allowed to be stolen) trillions of taxpayer dollars. It also has a contract to manage the police and court systems in US-occupied Iraq.

“Winokur’s connections to Enron, DynCorp and the Harvard Endowment (which during the Clinton years saw its assets increase from $3 billion to $19 billion) demonstrate that quite often the key players escape mainstream scrutiny altogether . . . Among other revelations were the facts that Harvard had made direct financial investments bailing out an ailing Harken Energy Corporation, then run by George W. Bush, and that, through its investment arm, Highfields Capital, it had dumped large quantities of Enron stock just before it crashed: insider trading at its best. ” There is no doubt that “Kenny Boy” Lay, the founder of Enron, was there every step of the way with “Pug."

Where, indeed, are the trillions of missing taxpayer dollars that were bilked by Enron?

Enron: case still open

Most, if not all, of the most important Enron-related facts remain wide the subject of denial and cover-up. From Lay’s long-time connections to the Bush family and the Texas oil/intelligence/crime milieu (captured in the book The Mafia, the CIA and George Bush by Pete Brewton), and the company’s virtual ownership of successive US presidencies and the US Congress, to Enron’s power-brokering role behind major US energy-related geostrategic operations over the past decade and a half.

It goes without saying that no federal or state “probe” over the past five years has addressed the true Enron corruption. The show trials of Lay, and his lesser Enron colleagues, Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow, have been, by design, limited hangouts that have begun to address the real crimes.

The true case against Enron leads to the very heart of the American Empire’s inner workings:

Enron: Ultimate Agent of the American Empire (Part One)

Enron: Ultimate Agent of the American Empire (Part Two)

The evidence detailed in this 2002 series tying Enron to the political crimes of both the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations have not only been confirmed, but strengthened by subsequent investigations and analysis by dogged and courageous independent investigators such as Catherine Austin Fitts, and Jason Leopold (a contributor to Online Journal, Truthout, and other sites), who has spent years doggedly pursuing various aspects of the Enron crime.

Neoliberals and progressive journalists have taken cracks at Enron in recent years, including Greg Palast, and the Institute for Policy Studies (see "Enron's Pawns"), with mixed results.

As Carolyn Baker writes in a piece titled "Godfather Government", there is no more stellar symbol of corporate dominance than the infamous glass skyscraper formerly occupied by Enron Corporation. But, as Baker notes, work towards revealing the true magnitude of Enron’s criminality has been limited.

“Catherine Austin Fitts has superbly connected the dots between the egregious criminality of Enron, the Harvard Endowment, and one of the federal government’s principal contractors, CSC-DynCorp. More recently, with the conviction of former Enron golden boys, Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay, investigative journalist, Greg Palast, has unleashed a scathing expose of Enron throughout alternative media . . .

“With the convictions of Lay and Skilling, Palast has seized the opportunity to muckrake enough dirt on Enron to fill its former Houston headquarters from basement to rooftop. So too have Peter Elkind and Bethany McLean in their fabulous 2006 documentary, “The Smartest Guys In The Room”; however, what Palast and the filmmakers both failed to address . . . was Enron’s involvement in moving and laundering massive quantities of drug money through its Enron Online trading company. From the research of Palast, Elkind, and Mc Lean, it is obvious that Enron cooked its books and used the smoke and mirrors of “Mark To Market” accounting to book profits out of thin air, but none of them can explain where Enron acquired the money to actually run its corporation while selling worthless stock and paving the way to financial oblivion for its investors and employees. The missing link in the Enron story is drug profits, but Mike Ruppert caught that link, as did Catherine Austin Fitts in her many articles revealing the Enron-Harvard-Citibank-DynCorp connection.”

A real investigation of Enron, one that spares the American Empire no quarter, still begs to be conducted.

To the bitter end

In The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, Robert Payne wrote, “Dictators deserve to be hanged in the market place in the sight of the people they ruled and corrupted. This is why the hanging of Mussolini upside down in a Milan gas station was, in human terms, so eminently satisfactory, while the obscure suicide of Hitler, in a bunker fifteen feet below the surface of Berlin left so many of his victims with the sense of being cheated. Hitler himself was perfectly aware that he was cheating and he rejoiced in his last act: once more he had outwitted his enemies.”Ken Lay has cheated the world, too. So did Richard Nixon, former CIA Director William Casey and other elite criminals who slithered away without suffering the punishment they richly earned. No doubt the Bushes, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, the Clintons, Henry Kissinger, and others are planning similar contingencies.

Copyright © 1998-2006 Online Journal
Email Online Journal Editor

Monday, July 10, 2006

What I've Learned

The author in Providence last weekend among friends and a couple of generations too.Posted by Picasa

I fell in love with the wings of birds
The light of spring on them!


In the light of flowers
I travel
Just for the sake of traveling.

---Soen Nakagawa

The mind creates the abyss, and the heart crosses it.

---Sri Nisargadatta

Some replies received to the post I put out yesterday, which was sort of about global warming but involved a sense of futility as well, have motivated me to get my act together. I didn't start out writing on the Internet about political things, but somehow or other during these Bush years, when concerns about the "mainstream media" in this country come from all sides, I started sending stuff to friends and contacts that I hoped would be helpful in keeping discussion going. I think that media problem may motivate much of the blogging revolution for people. Where do you find out what's really going on in the world? Ordinarily I sprinkle links and footnotes all over such pieces, which is how I learned to do research for social studies papers and debating. I'm not going to do that this time because I need to speak from my own history and experience. I see no other way to address those replies.

I know a couple guys online I've never met face-to-face who like to keep things jumping with really basic questions. I hesitate to summarize what they stand for...and they are very different people...but they share a sort of warrior mentality. They live in the US---I think---and seem ready to survive, if necessary, with a knife and some matches...or with nothing if those luxuries are not available. So whenever I post about a political solution to something, one or the other or both generally jump in with both feet.

One of the guys grew up in the inner city but now lives in the Arizona desert, very close to the recent fires. His nickname is Bushman, for a couple of reasons probably...but I think he is available to do landscape work and tend your bushes. He wrote back the following: "It's all right here. Cleansed by fire, again." And he included a link to some Hopi prophecies. He means he's ready to ride it out with things as they are, rather than muck about with government agencies trying to regulate everything.

The other fellow changes his nickname about once a month and currently is going by Darklander. Here's what he has to say: "Fear is a good tactic that all hierarchs love to use to keep the sheeple in line. Stop voting for these dingbats (sure doesn't do you any good!), disband the military, stop sending your sons and daughters to Moloch, quit the 501 3C 'Corporate' churches, find out who you really are... be free from the lot of the rot. Nah, easier to blame it on, ah, global warming..."

Now I like both these guys a great deal. For one thing, they have great wit and keep me laughing. Nothing is better in the midst of argument and struggle. I have a friend here in Athens something like Bushman and Darklander, who just retired from 3 decades of teaching industrial tech and intends to move into a cave and become a cannibal. What do I say to people like this...and why does it matter?

I see signs everywhere in America that we are rethinking the basics. If the Bush paleocons and neocons, or whatever they are, have done nothing else, they've forced us to do that. How did it all happen to this country? There used to be a magazine called Saturday Review. When it went out of business, we got the first hint that institutions we thought were the very foundation pillars of civilization could collapse and disappear. Saturday Review had a series of occasional articles by geezers called What I've Learned. I think those essays got collected into a book eventually. Now that I'm a geezer, I'm going to try one.

When I was a boy it was the postwar 1940s. My mother had a wringer washer and there were no driers. She washed clothes twice a week and hung them out on a clothesline. A mile east were factories and the Erie railroad. Coal was used to fire everything. We just had gotten rid of our coal furnace, replacing it with oil or gas...not sure which. But most people still used coal...or steam fired somehow by coal. Coal meant soot. In the late '40s there was soot everywhere...on windowsills (no air conditioning) which meant lots of dusting every day, and on Mom's clean sheets hanging outdoors. She cursed the darn soot...but not too much. We lived with soot because it meant prosperity and food in the fridge. We liked seeing smoke pour out of the stacks because jobs and production were going full blast. We liked the locomotives puffing through town, carrying passengers and goods alike. The sound of a train whistle still is enough to stop a geezer in his tracks!

Did anyone think about carbon emissions destroying the planet? I don't think so, and on we went into the automobile models of the 1950s. My father even got a job selling them, and so we had a brand new Mercury every year. What kind of mileage did they get? Who cared? Gasoline was pennies a gallon. Everything was pennies a gallon. Milk was delivered to your early morning door, in returnable glass bottles with cream on the top. Such a world may seem strange now, even alien...but many Americans yearn to return to it somehow. Ronald Reagan probably was such a man...and possibly even continued to live in the 1950s somewhere in his mind. Why did he happen?

My father was a simple man. His family circumstances during the Depression made something like college unthinkable. He had to help support his family and went to work, and continued to work until he couldn't anymore and was content to get a week or 2 off a year for vacation. I don't believe he ever made more than $10,000 a year. In the 1960s and 1970s, when my father was heading into retirement, young people just starting out got $20,000 a year at least. Inflation. But Dad's Social Security check was based on $10,000 a year in a world where everybody needed $20,000 a year. Republicans blamed Democrats for causing the inflation and Reagan won. My father voted for him.

Some say the inflation was caused by big government. There were regulatory agencies that sucked up your income and they had to be dismantled. The Bush people are completing that job at the moment. Others said corporations were passing their labor costs onto the public by raising prices of goods all the time. People blamed the unions for this and even the working man believed it and turned against the union movement. I must say I was startled when I did some factory work in the mid-'70s to see high school dropouts making more money on a machine than I had made teaching school with a college degree. But part of their wages were going to pay for the new medical benefits that came with the job. Why in the world did companies start up benefit packages like that?

One answer I heard was in the late 1940s there were price controls. The Truman administration may have tried that approach to inflation. I've always liked the idea of price controls as a way to control corporate excess...but they have significant disadvantages. One is that a company has a hard time attracting the best workers if they can't offer higher wages than the next guy. To get around it, companies began to offer benefits other than money. An insurance plan shared by the company workers, with premiums paid by the boss, did the trick. Did anybody think eventually your part of the medical premium out of that paycheck would amount to hundreds of dollars a month?

Let's talk about schools. In my hometown of 40,000 people in the 1940s and 1950s, there were 6 elementary and 3 junior high schools. You walked to them everyday, came home for lunch, and walked back for the afternoon. Out in the rural areas, they were starting to shut down the one-room schoolhouses, where my aunt had taught all alone, and build central schools. They had something called schoolbuses out there and sometimes even a lunchroom. I never saw a schoolbus in town except for those few that brought country kids into our high school. Gas was pennies a gallon.

During the 1960s, for a number of reasons including civil rights, school systems in the US started buying whole fleets of buses. That meant hiring a lot of drivers too. At the same time we decided to build cafeterias and hire cooks and servers to be sure everybody got good nutrition. (Checked a school menu lately?) Food and transportation now have become huge budget items...and of course gasoline is forcing teachers out of work. Why didn't anybody foresee these problems? Can we go back to the old way? Those schools have been converted into housing units for the elderly by now. Privatize? Do away with public education?

You see what I mean...and of course Bushman and Darklander are way ahead of me here. These problems of environment, oil prices, education, and the health system are so gigantic few political leaders seem able even to talk about them. Yeah, flagburning is an issue we can get our heads around. I know the idea of government agencies and bureaucracy is loathsome and there is waste galore. I did some of that work in my time too, and I can tell you there are plenty of workers and administrators alike who drink lots of coffee everyday and do little else. But the work of regulation and services that don't make the kind of profit that interests Republicans is necessary work I say, and watchdogging those agencies can be done. Agencies are easier dogs to watch than these corporations we have around it seems. Unless the agency is locked up in secrecy---which is another problem the republic faces.

What I've learned is mistakes have been made. They're gigantic and some may be reversible and some may not. What many think now is calculations were made too. Maybe that inflation that brought Reagan to power was planned out. Maybe the banking system is corrupt beyond repair. Lawyers are to blame. All I know is I don't want to bide my next 2 years either hoping Bush will croak or somebody will blow the ultimate whistle to expose the whole mess. I don't want to look in vain for a politician to dare to speak out either. But I have faith people can wake up and come together and build something sensible and lasting. I'd like to think there can be more to life than building a fortress around your own little campfire. Let's talk about it.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Earth On Fire

Photo by George Kochaniec, Jr., Associated PressFlames and smoke from a backburn set to control the Mato Vega Fire near Fort Garland, Colo., tower over a firefighter.Posted by Picasa

You can't make a date with enlightenment.

---Shunryu Suzuki

Seeing misery in views and opinions, without adopting any, I found inner peace and freedom. One who is free does not hold to views or dispute opinions. For a sage there is no higher, lower, nor equal, no places in which the mind can stick. But those who grasp after views and opinions only wander about the world annoying people.

---The Sutta Nipata

Lark on the moon, singing---
sweet song
of non-attachment.


Was it Mark Twain who said, "Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it"? Fifty years ago that was funny. Now everybody's still talking about the weather, but we wonder if the stuff we do affects it or not. Nobody with a brain doubts global warming is happening, but is it merely a natural cycle, as the Right sings to us, or has our pollution screwed us up, as the Left maintains? Either way, is it going to kill us and what is one person supposed to do about it?

This weekend every news outlet in the world is carrying a study that shows the Warming causes more and worse forest and desert fires. Is CNN middle of the road enough? But that's not all this time. Scientific American is carrying it. So is Science News. And National Geographic. Satellite pictures the other day show Central Canada choking in flames and smoke.

The New York Times yesterday carried an editorial pointing out the Supreme Court has decided to handle a case on whether the Environmental Protection Agency has the legal authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The case, brought by a collection of state governments and environmental groups, grows out of the way Bush reads the Clean Air Act. And then there's the Al Gore movie.

The New Scientist wrote yesterday, "AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH is not only inconvenient - it's an outright anomaly. The movie's average per-screen box office earnings beat the recent romantic comedy blockbuster The Break-up starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn. Its companion book has reached number three on The New York Times bestseller list. And it stars 'the former next president of the United States', Al Gore, talking about global warming with the help of a slideshow." Yeah, but is it changing anybody's mind? The "choir" went to see it, but did anybody else? GoogleNewsSearch "An Inconvenient Truth" and you'll find rightwing bloggers still hacking Al Gore up with accusations of tinfoil hat insanity. How about a little movie that combines his urgency with The March Of The Penguins? George Bush is proud to say he won't be seeing it.

And it's not only the Right who have doubts about what the movie accomplishes. Liberals have a tendency to kick back in expectation that once their truth has been told, somebody will do something about it. Talk about creating your own reality! My good friend Annie Warmke at went so far as to write Gore an open letter in which she tosses down a challenge to him of her own. She asked me to distribute it for her but a trip to New England delayed me from doing so...but here it is now~~~

The Inconvenient Truth…about us humans – An open letter to Albert A. Gore

By Annie Warmke

Dear Mr. Gore,

You surely put on a good lecture in the film "The Inconvenient Truth". It was especially touching when you shared how, as a young college student you learned what was happening to the earth’s atmosphere…and after you were momentarily "America’s next president" it became clear to you that you needed to go back to "the slide show" (the information you shared in the film). It occurred to me that up until the election you have been on the wrong path.

But frankly, I don’t think any of our "handsomest politicians" care beyond a fleeting thought what happens to the earth. And I can see from past performance that the giant corporations of the world don’t either. Most of us Americans are too ignorant or lazy to care. So that leaves those who CAN see the forest for the trees pondering what to do next.

You say you are going to take the logic and scientific evidence of how the earth is changing to one city at a time, one person at a time, one family at a time. That’s an old political organizing strategy, but, again to be quite frank, it isn’t going to work.

Folks in America want more of everything, including electricity, and they don’t seem to be able to "connect the dots" between what is happening to weather patterns, and their tremendous need to consume everything in sight. In America we seem to believe that it is our God-given right to shop until we drop, and we want to drive to the shopping in the biggest car possible. I saw an ad in the paper yesterday for a machine, for home use, that made 33 lbs. of ice in 24 hours. There was another machine to warm a person’s hand lotion. With that kind of competition to your message of scientific logic I just don’t see how Americans are going to run out of the theater (if they even bothered to show up for the film) and begin to change how they live.

We seem to think that if we change we have to give up something…and we want everything – the bigger the better. The other problem we face is the fact that we don’t see the earth as an asset that shores up our very existence. We don’t seem to understand that without the Earth’s systems working properly we can’t survive. We’re like the bumper sticker that reads, "No more money? But I still have checks!"

We CAN make changes, but we won’t. You know it, and I know it. We’ll adapt as the earth heats up, but we won’t change how we use electricity or stop burning fossil fuels or promote population control because that takes work, and the big corporations are making plenty of money so that they can keep our "handsomest politicians" supporting their efforts.

In the beginning of your film you talk about living on a farm where the cool river water and the rustling of the tree leaves reminded you to take a deep breath and say to yourself, "I remember this". Mr. Gore, most of us don’t even know what being quiet or calm or still feels like so we can’t possibly "remember". Have you listened to the noise level of this country lately? Even if we wanted to we couldn’t hear ourselves think over TV’s blaring everywhere we go, music playing (in the background, of course) in shops, and all kinds of motors running to keep things like home made ice machines churning out ice.

It seems people are afraid of silence. If we heard the silence we might be forced to face the inconvenient truth that we’ve become something our grandparents wouldn’t like…childish bullies grabbing it all and killing off the source of life in the process.

So Mr. Gore, even though I’m grateful to see mainstream American theaters allowing you the freedom to show this film, I cannot embrace your blind faith that we will change our ways.

As the film credits rolled, and we listened to the moving song about making change tears welled up in my eyes as I watched the list of all of the amazing simple ways we could make earth saving changes. If only we could all magically make that list a part of our lives…but it can’t possibly happen to 300 million people all at once.

Just so you know…there are some of us who will continue to live simply, "plant lots of trees, eat locally and pray that people will change". None of that is going to alter anything except for us, and that’s the "inconvenient truth" about what our grandchildren and their children face, but thanks Mr. Gore for trying.


Annie's not alone in asking Al Gore to get tougher. An interview with him in the July 13-27 ROLLING STONE raises the same issue~~~

RS - At the end of the movie, you make it sound like it's not going to be that hard to stop global warming -- we'll just change our lifestyles and turn this thing around. But isn't that too optimistic? The scientist James Lovelock says that by the end of this century, most of the Earth will be uninhabitable -- the planet's population will plummet by eighty percent.
Gore - Lovelock is truly a visionary. But I disagree with his darker view. He's forgotten more about science than I'll ever learn -- but I think I know one thing about politics that he doesn't. Sometimes, the political system is like the climate system, in that it's nonlinear. It can seem to change at a snail's pace and then suddenly cross a tipping point beyond which it shifts into a shockingly fast gear. All of a sudden, change that everybody thought was impossible becomes matter of fact. In 1941, it was absurd to think the U.S. could build a thousand airplanes a month to fight the Second World War. By 1943 that was a real small number. Imagine where we would be today if Bush, after properly invading Afghanistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden, had not unwisely invaded a country that had no role in the attack on us. He could have pursued the terrorists and called upon the United States to become independent of oil.
RS - OK, say you're the guy making that call. What do you ask us to do -- trade in our cars and buy a hybrid?Gore - Here's the essence of our problem: Right now, the political environment in the country does not support the range of solutions that have to be introduced. The maximum you can imagine coming out of the current political environment still falls woefully short of the minimum that will really solve the crisis. But that's just another way of saying we have to expand the limits of the possible. And that's the main reason that I made this movie -- because the path to a solution lies through changing the minds of the American people. Not just on the facts -- they're almost there on the facts -- but in the sense of urgency that's appropriate and necessary. Once that happens, then things that seem impossible now politically are going to be imperative. I believe there is a hunger in the country to be part of a larger vision that changes the way we relate to the environment and the economy. Right now we are borrowing huge amounts of money from China to buy huge amounts of oil from the most unstable region of the world, and to bring it here and burn it in ways that destroy the habitability of the planet. That is nuts! We have to change every aspect of that.
RS - And that has to be done within ten years?
Gore - No, we don't have to do all of it in ten years -- that would be impossible. What the scientists are saying when they give this dark warning is that we may have as little as ten years before we cross a tipping point, beyond which there's an irretrievable process of degradation. They are saying that we have to make a large, good-faith start -- to first reduce the amount of global-warming pollution, and then eventually to flatten it and turn it down. It is very possible to start leveling it out within the next five years.
RS - How is that possible, given the current administration?
Gore - This is not a partisan issue. I talked to a CEO of one of the ten largest companies in the United States, who supported Bush and Cheney. He told me, "Al, let's be honest. Fifteen minutes after George Bush leaves the presidency, America is going to have a new global-warming policy, and it doesn't matter who's elected." And I think that the smartest CEOs, even in places like Exxon-Mobil, now understand that the clock is ticking, and the world is changing, and the United States is not going to be able to continue living in this little bubble of unreality.
RS - Do you think these people are taking that message to Bush and Cheney?
Gore - Some of them are. But Bush is insulated -- his staff smiles a lot and only gives him the news that he wants to hear. Unfortunately, they still have this delusion that they create their own reality. As George Orwell wrote, we human beings are capable of convincing ourselves of something that's not true long after the accumulated evidence would convince any reasonable person that it's wrong. And when leaders persist in that error, sooner or later they have a collision with reality, often on a battlefield. That, in essence, is exactly what happened in Iraq. But we have to keep that from happening with the climate crisis. Because by the time the worst consequences begin to unfold, it would be too late.
RS - What gets in the way of people hearing that message?
Gore - Part of it is evolution. Our brains are much better at perceiving danger in fangs and claws and spiders and fire. It's more difficult to trigger the alarm parts of the brain -- those connected to survival -- with grave dangers that can only be perceived through abstract models and complex data.Another part of it is the marketplace of ideas. A few loud voices have enough money to buy repetitive messages, like the Exxon-Mobil ads on the op-ed page of The New York Times. As the big money fueling political commercials does these little short slogans, it becomes even more difficult for a self-governing democracy to be honest with itself about an unprecedented danger that is woven into the fabric of our society.
RS - How do you fight that big money?
Gore - Tipper and I are giving 100 percent of all the profits we get from both the movie and the book to a new bipartisan alliance for climate protection. It will run ads about the nature of the crisis and the way we can solve it. But the profits from the film won't begin to approach the money that Exxon has. They will have a lot of money. I am not on the board of it, but I'm giving them a lot of money, and I'm raising them much, much more. There are some real heavyweights involved in this. We have former members of the Reagan and first Bush administrations. Steve Jobs is helping to design the ad campaign. At the end of September, I'm going to start training a thousand people to take my slide show all across the country, to high schools and civic clubs and anybody who will listen. We're going to get this message out there -- and when we do, the political system will shift gears, and you'll see a dramatic change. I will make a prediction that within two years, Bush and Cheney themselves will change their position.
RS - In two years they'll be gone!
Gore - Before they leave office. Unfortunately, they've got two and a half years left. Two and a half days is too much, in my opinion. I must confess I'm beginning to lose my objectivity with Bush and Cheney. I regret that, but I must be candid with you [laughs].
RS - What did you think during the 2000 campaign on the day that Bush announced he would limit CO2 emissions if he were elected? Did you think, "That's bullshit"?
Gore - I thought it was fraudulent. I actually did not anticipate that he would directly and brazenly break that pledge, and go 180 degrees in the opposite direction at full speed, but I thought that he would slow-walk it and make it meaningless. They were trying to drain the moral energy out of an issue that they felt could hurt them if the public perceived a clear contrast on the issue.
RS - Did it seem like a smart move, strategically, at that point?
Gore - Well, if you define the word "smart" in an antiseptic and clinical way that excludes any ethical dimension, then, yeah, I guess it was smart. Smart, if you're willing to say things that you know are not true. But that's what Karl Rove is known for. Bush's whole pose as a compassionate conservative was fraudulent. His budget was fraudulent. Even the idea that he would be staunchly opposed to nation building was fraudulent. I don't mean that he actually knew at the time of the campaign that he was going to invade Iraq -- because I don't think Cheney had told him yet [laughs]. But the statement on global warming, and the specific pledge to reduce CO2 emissions with the force of law, was part of a larger pattern. He was completely fraudulent from head to toe.
RS - Will changing their position be forced by external events, like another hurricane?
Gore - I see it being forced by a collision with reality. What part of their bubble feels the first impact of the collision? Is it the bumper or is it the windshield; is it the driver-side door? I don't know. I think Katrina was a tipping point for millions of Americans. A top insurance executive at Lloyd's of London said just the other week that if we don't act now to prevent this looming catastrophe, "we will face extinction." You know -- just a typical, long-haired hippie at Lloyd's of London.

©Copyright 2006 Rolling Stone and continuing

The website for An Inconvenient Truth is here and I must admit my computer is too tired right now to bring it up. There seems to be a Take Action link on there, so maybe there's something we can do today. I can't find Al Gore's email address, but if you find one send him Annie's letter.