Sunday, December 31, 2006

December 31

On this date in 1991, the government of El Salvador and the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) reached an initial agreement to end one of the worst Latin American conflicts of the 20th century. The El Salvadoran civil war, fueled by billions of dollars in military assistance from the Reagan administration, cut short 70-80,000 lives and resulted in massive human rights abuses, nearly all of which -- as a United Nations Truth Commission later revealed -- were perpetrated by the government, whose armed forces and roving death squads eliminated labor activists, Jesuit priests, American churchwomen, and peasant leaders under the pretense of disabling the rebellion.


Six years after the preliminary settlement in El Salvador, the Quaker Oats company and the Massachusetts Institute of technology resolved a lawsuit brought by nearly a dozen plaintiffs who -- as residents of the notorious Walter E. Fernald State School for the "feeble-minded" -- were unwittingly fed cereal tainted with radioactive iron from 1946-1953. The Fernald School had been one of the leading eugenic institutions during the 1920s and 1930s, and its legacy included decades of physical and sexual abuse. The cold war radiation study, partially sponsored by the Quaker company (which provided free oats for the Fernald children), was intended to track the body's absorption of nutrients -- data, the company later claimed, that would allow it to market its products more competitively against rivals like Cream of Wheat. The children's parents were told that the study's participants would be joining a "science club." In a letter written to parents in 1953, the directors of the Fernald School explained that
In previous years we have done some examinations in connection with the nutritional department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with the purposes of helping to improve the nutrition of our children and to help them in general more efficiently than before.

For the checking up of the children, we occasionally need to take some blood samples, which are then analyzed. The blood samples are taken after one test meal which consists of a special breakfast meal containing a certain amount of calcium. We have asked for volunteers to give a sample of blood once a month for three months, and your son has agreed to volunteer because the boys who belong to the Science Club have many additional privileges. They get a quart of milk daily during that time, and are taken to a baseball game, to the beach and to some outside dinners and they enjoy it greatly.

I hope that you have no objection that your son is voluntarily participating in this study. The first study will start on Monday, June 8th, and if you have not expressed any objections we will assume that your son may participate.
The fact that these developmentally disabled children were being exposed to radioactive isotopes was not, obviously, mentioned. Although the doses of radiation were not likely to have caused any medical harm, the experiment's protocols were grossly unethical, as the Department of Energy made clear in 1994 when it released a 1000-page history of the United States' Cold War-era radiation experiments.

On 31 December 1997, Quaker Oats and MIT agreed to pay $1.85 million to the surviving participants. The Fernald School, which was converted into an adult facility during the 1970s, is scheduled to close its doors forever in the new year of 2007.

photograph by John Hoagland

Saturday, December 30, 2006

December 30

On a date that will long be remembered for the execution of Saddam Hussein, we might recall another execution that took place 110 years ago at Bagumbayan Field in Manila. There, on 30 December 1896, the Filipino novelist, poet, sculptor, and linguist Jose Rizal was shot by a squad of Filipino infantry for the crime of rebellion against Spanish rule. The author of Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo -- two of the most important works of anti-imperialist fiction to emerge from Asia in the 19th century -- was accused by his colonial masters of working with the Katipunan, a secret society dedicated to the dissolution of Spanish authority in the Philippines. Members of the Katipunan promoted an egalitarian and nationalist ideology that rejected the class divisions reinforced by Spanish land ownership and resource extraction; when the existence of the society was disclosed in August 1896, the Katipuneros quickly resorted to armed insurrection as the Philippine Revolution commenced.

Although Jose Rizal was not a member of the Katipunan, he had founded La Liga Filipina -- a civic organization that eventually divided into several factions (one of which evolved into the Katipunan -- and was elected as its honorary president. As a political activist who had already faced deportation and exile in Mindanao during the early 1890s, Rizal was an easy target for Spanish authorities looking to crush the uprising. En route to Cuba, where had had been given leave to found a hospital for malaria victims, Rizal was arrested and returned to Manila for a trial that lacked even the basic components of due process. In the absence of any material evidence to support the charges, Rizal was nevertheless convicted of rebellion, sedition and conspiracy and sentenced to die. In his last hours, Rizal composed a poem known as "Mi Ultima Adios" ("My Last Farewell") and hid it in a small stove, where it was discovered after his execution. The final two stanzas of the poem read:
My idolized country, sorrow of my sorrows,
Beloved Filipinas, hear my last good-bye.
There I leave you all, my parents, my loves.
I'll go where there are no slaves, hangmen nor oppressors,
Where faith doesn't kill, where the one who reigns is God.

Goodbye, dear parents, brother and sisters, fragments of my soul,
Childhood friends in the home now lost,
Give thanks that I rest from this wearisome day;
Goodbye, sweet foreigner, my friend, my joy;
Farewell, loved ones, to die is to rest.


On the 104th anniverary of Jose Rizal's death, five ammonium nitrate bombs exploded in locations across Manila, killing 22 people. The explosives were laid by members of Jamaah Islamiyah, a group that would later achieve notoriety for the October 2002 bombings at Paddy's Bar and the Sari Club, which killed 202 workers and tourists in Bali, Indonesia. The Rizal Day Bombing was the 268th terrorist incident to occur across the Philippine archipelgo in 2000, a year in which 142 Filipinos died and nearly a thousand wounded in such attacks.

Friday, December 29, 2006

December 29

On this date in 1170, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton -- four knights in the service of the English crown -- slew Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, inside the walls of Canterbury Cathedral. Becket was martyred in retaliation for his near decade-long efforts to insulate the Church from all forms of secular authority. His increasingly dangerous personal confrontation with Henry II -- an old friend and drinking companion from his less pious days as a courtier -- led to Becket's flight from England in 1164, only two years after his appointment as archbishop. Henry and Becket were at odds not merely over matters of power and authority, but over money as well. Henry accused his former friend of embezzling 30,000 English pounds during his tenure as the king's Lord Chancellor; he was also angry about a personal debt of 500 pounds that Becket refused to repay.

From exile in France, Becket urged Pope Alexander to excommunicate the English king, efforts that had nearly born fruit in 1170 when the archibishop returned to England. Several days after delivering a Christmas sermon in which he allegedly spoke of the physical peril he would soon face, Becket was assaulted by the four knights, who believed they were acting on behalf of the King's wishes. According to Edward Grim, a Cambridge clerk who lost part of an arm in the attack, the conspirators struck Becket at least three times with their swords, severing the top of the archbishop's head. As Grim described the scene in an account published a decade after the murder, the brains and blood of the victim "purpled the appearance of the church with the colors of the lily and the rose, the colors of the Virgin and Mother and the life and death of the confessor and martyr." As Becket's skull emptied itself onto the stone floor of the cathedral, one of the knights stirred the mess with his sword and announced that the archbishop was not likely to get up again. The knights then stole his horses and bulls.


On the 720th anniversary of Becket's death, soldiers from the United States 7th Cavalry slaughtered roughly 300 Miniconjou Sioux on the banks of Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. The victims of the massacre -- mostly women, children and elderly -- were on their way to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where they hoped to escape arrest and forcible relocation as punishment for their adherence to the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance, a syncretic and enthusiastic religious movement that began in 1890 as a mixture of messianic Christianity and Native American spirituality, promised to restore of land and game lost over the previous centuries; to some of its devotees it also envisioned the obliteration of whites, who would be buried underneath the replenished soil of the new prairie.

The attack at Wounded Knee, part of a campaign to suppress the Ghost Dance movement and disarm the Sioux nation, pitted the unarmed Miniconjou against the 7th Cavalry, which arrayed machine guns and Hotchkiss cannons against the refugees. The precise cause of the battle has remained in dispute ever since 1890, but the outcome was an unambiguous atrocity. Most of the victims died within the first half hour, although many wounded Miniconjou perished of exposure to the extreme cold weather and blizzard that descended upon the ravaged encampment that night. In the days that followed, more than 100 frozen bodies were dumped into a massive burial pit while the nation celebrated the vanquishing of the Ghost Dance.

In recognition of their bravery in killing defenseless men, women and children, two dozen US soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Recent efforts by American Indian activists to have those medals rescinded have been unsuccessful.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

December 23

December 23 is Festivus. In solemn recognition of the holiday season, the Axis of Evel Knievel will be going on hiatus for the next week as I help prepare the Fesivus Dinner, participate in the ritual Airing of Grievances, and recover from my inevitable victory in the Feats of Strength which will -- as always -- roil my family in a bellum omnia contra omnes.

This means, among other things, that we will be unable to reminisce about Vincent Van Gogh's ear (which he severed, hoping to impress a prostitute, on 23 December 1888); the formation of the Ku Klux Klan (24 December 1865); the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (24 December 1979); the execution of Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu, shot by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989; the mass hanging of 39 Dakota Sioux warriors (26 December 1862); and an endless horizon of other catastrophes.

Happy holidays, to the extent that such things are possible.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Carnival of Bad History #12

Nominations for this month's Carnival were not exactly forthcoming. Indeed, there were zero. (UPDATE: Ack! There were submissions, but some kind of e-mail mix-up seems to have prevented them from reaching me. Jonathan Dresner provides the links here.) Perhaps everyone is busy with the Secular Progressive War on Christmas, which has apparently devolved into a bloody stalemate; historians will one day wonder if the SP forces made a critical error last year when they shifted valuable assets to what turned out to be an unnecessary War on Presidents' Day.

In a gesture of solidarity with those waging the good fight against Bill O'Reilly, John Gibson and the Dobson Empire, this top-heavy and judgmental Holiday Carnival will have absolutely nothing more to say about Christmas. Instead, I offer you a roster of links so depressing and/or infuriating that any remnant of holiday cheer will seem an absurd and shameful luxury.

Bad people

Augusto Pinochet

If anyone wonders why the world seemed a little brighter on December 10, or why your toast was a little crispier, or why the air suddenly felt cleansed of a foul and noxious miasma, it was probably because Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte choked out his last mortal breath only weeks after his 91st birthday. It was, appropriately enough, Human Rights Day -- acknowledging the 58th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the UN in 1948 and ignored by Pinochet throughout his tortuous 16-year rule.

Who better to launch the celebration than Marc Cooper, who worked as a translator for Salvador Allende and who left Chile a week after the 1973 coup under the protection of of the United Nations. Cooper's requiem, so to speak, is itself loaded with links that help us remember why Pinochet -- unlike most 91-year-olds -- should not be recalled with any degree of fondness. Considering the Pinochet regime's treatment of political dissidents, one wonders if a proper burial for Pinochet might include his corpse being heaved from a helecopter into the Pacific Ocean.

At Alterdestiny, where words are rarely minced, Mr. Trend reminds us that one of the operant myths about Pinochet's rule -- that he "gave up" power in 1989 -- is . . . well . . . not especially accurate. And at The Moderate Voice, we read about the error in assuming that Pinochet could be credited for Chile's economic "success" since the 1980s. And Matt Yglesias evaluates the perverse logic of defending Pinochet by criticizing Castro.

Not that any of this would matter to people like Mark Steyn, who (almost literally) toasted the dead general by reprinting his unwholesome 1998 apologia for Pinochet, written on the occasion of his arrest in England. Steyn then returned to finish the jar of paste he was eating before his hero's death was announced. Somebody at Red State helped Steyn out by offering the idiotic claim that Pinochet's death was a "loss" for all and that Pinochet "saved" his nation from Allende -- a claim that was pretty much destroyed by Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings, who notes:
Given the actual evidence, it seems pretty lame to try to defend Pinochet on the grounds that Allende might, for all we know, have killed more people had he remained in power. He might have done [it], but then he might also have paved the streets of Santiago with gold, or fielded an army of flying monkeys, or turned into a giant talking toaster oven. When you're playing with counterfactuals and you don't require any actual evidence that something was likely to happen, there is no end to the possibilities you have at your disposal.

Jonah Goldberg
What's worse than a hack like Mark Steyn who toasts to Pinochet's memory? How about a hack like Jonah Goldberg who calls for an "Iraqi Pinochet" to bring order out of chaos? Scott Lemieux administers the proper scoldings, joined by Eric at Total Information Awareness. Michael J.W. Stickings simply
describes Goldberg as a "moral degenerate" and moves on.

Bad Memory

At HNN, Richard K. Neumann, Jr. takes up one of the Pearl Harbor "myths" that surfaces predictably every Dec. 7. To wit:
Every year as December 7 approaches we hear and read that eight battleships were sunk at Pearl Harbor. That is even repeated in a 2001 article by HNN staff on the HNN website debunking movie myths about Pearl Harbor.

It didn’t happen.
Elsewhere, the subject of Pearl Harbor as a presidential speech prop reveals that Gerald Ford of all people deserves credit for inventing the "Pearl Harbor address."

Bad Terminology

At Jon Swift's blog, the question of "civil war" receives its proper illumination:
So taking a page from Tony Snow's book I propose calling it the Iraq War of Terrorists and Rejectionists Not Operating as a Unified Force and Without a Clearly Identifiable Leader Who Severally and Together Pose a Threat to the Government Through Sectarian Violence Operations.

Bad Acting

To end things on an upbeat note, so to speak, the long anticipated Camelot Awards reveal at last the Pay of Pigs Award for the worst portrayal of JFK in film. Emerging from a field thick with competitors, Patrick Dempsey should savor this one.

Monday, December 18, 2006

December 18

On 18 December 1878, a child was born to a peasant family in Gori, Georgia, which was at the time part of the vast terrain of the Russian Empire. Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, as the baby was named on that day, would eventually distinguish himself as one of the most ghastly human beings to soil the historical record of the 20th century. By the age of 17, little Josef had established himself as a competent seminarian and an aspiring Georgian poet, offering up pleasant and subtly anti-Tsarist reflections on the landscapes of his youth. When he became a revolutionary, he ceased writing poetry forever.

Perhaps it was the near-daily beatings he absorbed at the hands of his father, an alcoholic craftsman displaced by the march of industrialization; perhaps his mother's sexual dalliances humiliated him to the core of his being; perhaps the deaths of his only three siblings established the morbid tone for his life; or perhaps, as the Vatican's chief exorcist recently claimed, he was possessed by the Devil. Whatever the explanation, "Stalin" -- as the infant would eventually come to call himself -- eventually presided over the deaths of millions of fellow Georgians as well as Russians, Latvians, Kazakhs, Ukrainians, Poles, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachays, Meskhetian Turks, Finns, and other ethnic and national groups suppressed on behalf of the Soviet state. The precise numbers killed, displaced, and tortured during Stalin's rule will of course never be known. It is a grotesque testimony to his inhumanity, however, that estimates of the dead range from 800,000 to nearly 60 million -- these being mere "statistics," as Stalin himself infamously noted.

Known by such absurdist, sycophantic nicknames as the "Coryphaeus of Science," the "Father of Nations," the "Brilliant Genius of Humanity," the "Gardener of Human Happiness," Joseph Stalin contorted science to fit his own ideological demands; made orphans of nations across Eastern Europe and Central Asia; wrote almost nothing that rose above the level of pedestrian Marxian theory; and cultivated near-universal despair for decades. In 1934, his verbal abuse at a dinner party drove his second wife, Nadya Allilueva, to suicide. As for Stalin himself, he expired from a massive stroke on 5 March 1953. Most of his final day was spent alone on the floor of his dacha, where he lay partly paralyzed and unable to call for assistance, or to tell anyone that he had soiled himself. If he was not in fact poisoned -- as has sometimes been alleged -- he probably should have been.

Friday, December 15, 2006

December 15

On this date in 1965, a fissure opened into Hell and The Sound of Music emerged, oozing like molten treacle across the surface of our world. As the universe sought desperately to re-establish its equilibrium, over 10,000 Bangladeshis -- innocent souls, to be sure, blameless for this Rodgers and Hammerstein nightmare -- perished in a sudden windstorm.

By horrible coincidence, this wad of cultural bolus was coughed out on the twenty-sixth anniversary of the film release of Gone With the Wind, that 20th century archetype of Confederate nostalgia. Margaret Mitchell, author of the novel on which the 1939 film was based, originally considered calling her book Tote the Weary Load, a phrase that aptly captures the experience of watching her odious, celluloid spawn. Another alternate title for the romantic epic was Tomorrow is Another Day, which might have served well as a slogan for Mitchell's own life -- at least until 16 August 1949, when she died of injuries sustained when she was flattened by an off-duty Atlanta cab driver whose driving record included more than twenty moving violations.

For Adolph Eichmann, the phrase "tomorrow is another day" would not have sounded quite so cheery on 15 December 1961, four years before the Sound of Music debuted. On that date, the former SS Obersturmbannfuhrer was sentenced by an Israeli court to hang for his role administering the so-called "Final Solution." Among other crimes against humanity, Eichmann coordinated the transport of hundreds of thousands of Jews and other ethnic, political and religious minorities to the gas chambers of Poland and Hungary. Most grievously, Eichmann continued to administer the death camps in Hungary even after being ordered to halt his work by Heinrich Himmler. Eichmann's appeals were unsuccessful, and he was executed seven months later after drinking half a bottle of dry Israeli wine and refusing the customary black hood.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

December 13

Ted Nugent -- rock guitarist, walking phallus and self-parodying right-winger -- turns 58 today. He shares his birthday with the legendary Alvin York, who led a devastating attack on a nest of German machine-gunners during the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne in 1918; on more than one occasion, Nugent has expressed hope that Sgt. York might be "cloned," in spirit if not in fact.

Ted Nugent also shares a birthday with Mary Todd Lincoln, who was gibbering mad.

Rising to fame in the 1970s with a string of somewhat well-regarded, jizz-splattered albums, "The Nuge" has spent the last two decades descending the evolutionary tree with artistic and political statements that grate against the ears with equal degrees of intensity. Only the long arc of history will allow us to judge whether Nugent's greatest crime was to participate in the objectively awful "supergroup" Damn Yankees -- or to become the Charlton Heston of his generation, promoting firearms with onanistic glee in one of the most violent nations in human history. Nugent, who obsessively congratulates himself for his environmental consciousness -- eating, as we know, only what he kills -- has nevertheless vigorously supported both wars in Iraq, declaring quite frankly that "some Arab numb-nut" should not be entitled to control "all our fuel." As perhaps the greatest chickenhawk in modern rock history, Nugent received a student deferment for enrolling in Oakland Community College; in 1977, however, he told High Times that he stopped bathing, soiled his pants deliberately, and took crystal meth in the weeks leading up to his physical. Given the opportunity to atone for his self-confessed cowardice, Nugent has traveled with the USO to Fallujah and to Afghanistan, where he was allowed to play with automatic weapons and defacate in one of Saddam Hussein's toilets. He later offered his uninformed assessment that the United States' difficulties in Iraq have resulted from an unwillingness to "Nagasaki them."

An avid admirer of George W. Bush, Nugent moved from Michigan to Crawford, Texas, several years ago. Nonetheless, he has suggested that he might return to his native state to run for governor. Should his political ambitions bear fruit, one wonders how well his views on early childhood education would fly with the voters of Michigan. A few years back, Nugent outlined his thoughts on firearms education, arguing that all American children should be given weapons training in elementary school. As he explained, the first day of the firearms course would conclude with a trip to what he called "The White Room," where the lessons of firearms safety would be rendered with all the subtlety of A Clockwork Orange
The children would be led into a properly constructed prefab shooting range chamber with all white walls, ceiling and floor, with a nice white table at the far end. On the white table would sit six all-white gallon cans of tomato juice with yellow smiley faces on them.

The kids would be seated and provided ear and eye protection. The instructor would then put on his ears and eyes, look squarely and sternly into the faces of the children, slam back the bolt of his AR-15 with the muzzle pointing back at the juice cans. He would then speak in a loud, clear voice, saying, "Pay very close attention, please." At which point he would level the .223 and in a smooth, rapid succession, commence to annihilate three cans in a shower of exploding red juice, splashing violently all over the pretty white walls, table, ceiling and floor, himself, and even some of those in attendance. Slinging the long arm onto his shoulder, our shooter would then unholster his sidearm and do the same to the remaining three cans with the same dynamic results. Holstering his handgun, he then would turn to face the roomful of stunned kids, fold his arms across his chest, and allow blatant facts to permeate and stain the psyche and souls of everyone there.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

December 12

Peter the HermitOn this date in 1098, European crusaders under the leadership of Raymond de Saint Gilles and Bohemond of Taranto arrived, malnourished and low on supplies, in the Syrian city of Ma'arra (known today as Ma'arrat al-Numan). Participating in the First Crusade, the soldiers had responded to the pleas of Pope Urban II to rescue the Holy Land of Jerusalem from Muslim control. Announcing that "Deus vult!" ("God wills it"), the Pope insisted -- as several previous pontiffs had -- that "Christendom" must unite in a Holy War against the infidels who resided in the realm of the decaying Umayyad Empire. In December 1095, Urban II delivered a fanatical, revanchist speech at the Council of Clermont that urged the creation of a classless army of thieves, nobles, mercenaries, and sectarian malcontents -- all of whom would be united in Christian martyrdom:
All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested. O what a disgrace if such a despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious with the name of Christ! With what reproaches will the Lord overwhelm us if you do not aid those who, with us, profess the Christian religion! Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago. Let those who for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians. Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now obtain the eternal reward. Let those who have been wearing themselves out in both body and soul now work for a double honor. Behold! on this side will be the sorrowful and poor, on that, the rich; on this side, the enemies of the Lord, on that, his friends. Let those who go not put off the journey, but rent their lands and collect money for their expenses; and as soon as winter is over and spring comes, let hem eagerly set out on the way with God as their guide.
By 1097, the fragmentary crusaders had arrived in Syria. The recovery of the Holy Land was not, to date, going well. After nearly a year of laying seige to the city of Antioch, the knights and peasant warriors were literally starving to death. As the seige dragged on, many of the noblemen had preferred to starve rather than eat their horses, while the poorer soldiers -- remnants from Peter the Hermit's "People's Crusade" -- had no such qualms and thus replenished themselves on the stringy, emaciated flesh of their departed steeds. According to legend, some of the Europeans at Antioch also consumed the bodies of the enemy Saracens after they had been killed.

These rumors were only enhanced by the subsequent events at Ma'arra, located to the southeast of Antioch between the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Hama. Staggering from hunger, their ranks thinned by a typhus eidemic that struck during the Antioch seige, the crusaders breached the walls of Ma'arra and slaughtered as many as 20,000 people. According to several chroniclers of the First Crusade, the hungry Christian soldiers soon resorted again to cannibalism. Radulph of Caen, for example, recorded than "In Ma'arra our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled." Albert of Aix observed that "Not only did our troops not shrink from eating dead Turks and Saracens; they also ate dogs!" In the Historia Hierosolymitana, compiled by Guibert of Nogent, the poorer soldiers -- known as Tafurs -- "roasted the bruised body of a Turk over a fire as if it were meat for eating, in full view of the Turkish forces." Fulcher of Chartres, author of A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, empathized with the cannibals themselves rather than the cannibalized. As he explained, "I shudder to say that many of our men, terribly tormented by the maddness of starvation, cut pieces of flesh from the buttocks of Saracens lying there dead. These pieces they cooked and ate, savagely devouring the flesh while it was insufficiently roasted."

Contemporary historians are uncertain if such acts of cannibalism actually took place. Whether or not the people of Ma'arra were eaten or not, nearly every one of them was most certainly killed. As for the promised vindication of the crusaders' blackened souls, we can only speculate on the fulfillment of the Pope's unconditional promises.

Monday, December 11, 2006

December 11

mozote1Twenty-five years ago today, hundreds of peasants in the Salvadoran village of El Mozote were slaughtered by the notorious Atlacatl Battalion, in cooperation with units from the Third Infantry Brigade and the San Francisco Gotera Commando Training Centre. Plumped with a new $35 million stream of military assistance from the Reagan administration in the US, the military forces were carrying out Operacion Rescate, a vicious counter-insurgency effort on behalf of the government of El Salvador, which at the time was waging a civil war against the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN). The FMLN, an umbrella group that included several leftist guerilla organizations, controlled much of the departments of Morazan and Chaletenango in the northeast and northwestern mountains of the country; El Mozote was one of several peasant villages believed -- erroneously, as it turned out -- to have been a haven for guerilla forces.

On December 9, after a nearby skirmish with FMLN guerillas, the Atlacatl Battalion sealed off the entire department of Morazan. Most of the villages in Morazan had already been severely depopulated if not completely abandoned, as thousands of people fled the civil war and streamed across the border into Honduras. Those who remained hid in caves and ravines at the first sight of army forces. El Mozote, however, had absorbed scores of refugees from the area and experienced a temporary surge. When the Atlacatl forces entered El Mozote, they placed the entire village under a curfew and vowed to shoot anyone who lef their homes that night. The following morning, the men and women of El Motoze were separated into groups and killed, systematically and brutally. Men were herded into the chapel for brief and tortuous interrogations, after which dozens were beheaded, shot, or eviscerated by knife and bayonet. Soldiers dragged young girls from the village and raped them. The women and children of El Mozote, after hearing their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons being tortured and murdered, were then marched from their homes and gunned down. Men with guns empied their weapons into a room full of children at the home of Alfredo Marquez.

Rufina Amaya Marquez, one of the few survivors of the El Mozote massacre, managed to flee the village and hide in the surrounding trees during the confusion. There, she watched and listened.
Then I heard one of my children crying. My son, Cristino, was crying, 'Mama Rufina, help me! They're killing me! They killed my sister! They're killing me! Help me!' I didn't know what to do. They were killing my children. I knew that if I went back there to help my children I would be cut to pieces. But I couldn't stand to hear it, I couldn't bear it. I was afraid that I would cry out, that I would scream, that I would go crazy. I couldn't stand it, and I prayed to God to help me. I promised God that if He helped me I would tell the world what happened here.
When Raymond Bonner of the New York Times reported on the El Mozote massacre in late January 1981, Rufina Amaya got her chance to "tell the world" about the massacre, which took the lives of her husband and three children, the oldest of whom was five.

Among those who refused to believe the words of Rufina Amaya Marquez, however, were John Negroponte, United States Ambassador to El Salvador; officials at the State Department, including Elliot Abrams, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights; the editorial staff of the Wall Street Journal; and the conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media. These and other American voices refused to give credence to the survivors of Operacion Rescate, accusing Bonner and the Times of exaggerating or distorting the truth and thereby serving the interests of the guerillas. Bonner was eventually removed from El Salvador by his employers, who insisted their decision had nothing to do with adverse pressure from the US government, which would eventually invest $4 billion in support of the Salvadoran regime that organized the murders.

After a concerted effort on the part of the United States and the government of El Salvador to discredit the story, the American Congress renewed and expanded its sponsorship of state terrorism in Central America. El Mozote, meanwhile, lay abandoned while the victims of 11 December 1981 remained unburied.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

December 7

Michel Ney, a marshall in the Napoleonic army, was shot by a firing squad of his own countrymen on this date in 1815, just hours after the sentence was delivered by the overwhelming assent of the Chamber of Peers. Ney, one of Napoleon's most trusted and revered subordinates, was convicted of treason for abandoning the regime of Louis XVIII for the usurper Napoleon, who had returned from his exile in Elba to regain the imperial throne he had abdicated the year before. Nicknamed le brave des braves by the Emperor during happier times, Ney was widely (and somewhat unjustly) blamed for the Belgian catastrophe at Waterloo in June 1815. The defeat of Napoleon bode poorly Ney's fate, which the Parisian royalists were determined to seal with an execution. In a letter written shortly after the battle, the marshall explained to a friend that:
[t]he most false and defamatory reports have been publicly circulated for some days, respecting the conduct which I have pursued during this short and unfortunate campaign. The journals have repeated these odious calumnies, and appear to lend them credit. After having fought during twenty-five years for my country, and having shed my blood for its glory and independence, an attempt is made to accuse me of treason; and maliciously to mark me out to the people, and the army itself, as the author of the disaster it has just experienced.
Ney would repeat those sentiments to an unmoved Chamber during his trial. Only one Peer voted for Ney's acquittal.

At an isolated spot in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Ney was offered a blindfold -- which he refused -- and was given the privilege of ordering his own death. According to some witnesses, Ney's final words underscored his reputation for bravery. "Soldiers," he instructed, "when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her . . . Soldiers Fire!"


texas7At 12:07 a.m. on 7 December 1982, the state of Texas executed Charles Brooks, Jr., for the crime of killing a used car mechanic six years previous. For no discernible reason, David Gregory was abducted by Brooks and Woody Loudres and taken to a motel, where he was bound to a chair and shot by by either Brooks or his accomplice, neither of whom ever explained who actually fired the shot. Loudres pled guilty to a lesser crime and received 40 years in prison; Brooks, who protested his innocence and fought the capital charge, was sentenced to death by lethal injection. He would be the first American to die by this newer, more palatable means of execution; he would also be the first African-American executed in the US since 1967.

After exhausting his appeals, Brooks was strapped to a gurney at the state prison in Huntsville, Texas. With eighteen witnesses viewing the scene behind plexiglass, Warden Jack Pursley permitted Brooks to speak some final words, which he spent on a prayer to Allah and a brief word of encouragement to his girlfriend Vanessa Sapp, whom he urged to "stay strong." When Warden Pursley gave the signal, a stream of poisons were released into Brooks' arm. He yawned, raised his arm, then wheezed as a dose of sodium thiopentol slipped him into unconsciousness. By all appearances asleep, Brooks was then administered roughly 100 milligrams of pancurinium bromide, which would have caused total muscular paralysis, masking what was quite likely excruciating pain as his diaphragm collapsed and he began to asphyxiate. Finally, the execution was completed with a dose of potassium chloride, which brought on a massive heart attack.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

December 6

At about 8:45 a.m. on 6 December 1917, two ships collided just off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. At the time, the harbor provided the livelihood for two thriving communities, each bursting with commercial and naval activity that only accelerated as a result of World War I. The population of Halifax had swelled to more than 50,000, with a smaller community of roughly 10,000 living in neighboring Dartmouth, a short ferry ride across the harbor. The economic bustle of Halifax generated no small degree of confusion, however, as civilian vessels jostled for right-of-way with ships from the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy; collisions were not infrequent.

When the French cargo ship Mont-Blanc and the Belgian relief vessel Imo struck each other on the morning of December 6, a spectacular fire erupted on the Mont-Blanc, whose starboard hull was punctured by the prow of its accidental adversary. Witnesses described an enormous plume of black smoke that coughed from the French ship, rising up into the morning sky, punctuated with short explosive bursts that resembled a fireworks display. The French crew, gibbering incoherently, abandoned the Mont-Blanc as it cruised slowly toward Pier 6. After attempting to no avail to extinguish the fire, a tugboat and several smaller craft from nearby British and Canadian naval vessels tried to nudge the Mont-Blanc back into the harbor. These efforts failed as well. More than a dozen fire trucks and wagons arrived at the pier to contend with the blaze. The people of Halifax were drawn to the spectacle as well. Hundreds gathered along the docks; hundreds more watched from the windows and porches of their waterside homes in the Richmond neighborhood. For nearly 20 minutes, Halifax buzzed with excitement.

No one -- aside from the French crew desperately rowing their way toward Dartmouth -- knew that the Mont-Blanc was stuffed like a Christmas turkey, loaded down with 226,000 kilograms of TNT; more than two million kilograms of picric acid; 56,000 kilograms of guncotton; and 223,000 kilograms of benzol. On its way to meet up with a trans-Atlantic convoy bound for war-stricken Europe, the captain of the Mont-Blanc was understandably reluctant to fly the usual warning flags, lest German U-Boats seize the opportunity to attack such an appealing target. At that moment, the Mont-Blanc was not only a ship in great distress, but it was also the largest bomb in human history.

hfxWhen it exploded at 9:04 a.m., the Mont-Blanc took the entire neighborhood of Richmond with it. The force of the blast propelled part of the anchor 4 kilometers; a section of a gun barrel was found 5 kilometers away at Dartmouth. Within a radius of two kilometers, homes, churches and businesses were destroyed by the thousands, instantly reduced to splinters and ash. More than 1500 people were immolated within seconds, including a Mi'kmak village that was completely annihilated. Over the next few days, hundreds more would perish from their injuries, which were too numerous for local institutions to manage. Thousands of survivors suffered horrific cuts from glass windows that shattered as they watched the Mont-Blanc smolder. For nearly 40 people who survived, the explosion of the Mont-Blanc was the last thing they ever saw. In subsequent years, Halifax would earn an outstanding reputation for its services to the blind.

The explosion -- which still ranks among the largest non-nuclear, man-made explosions ever -- triggered an 18-foot tsunami, which was followed by a series of fires caused by overturned stoves and leaking fuel oil. That night, a blizzard struck the town, killing dozens of people trapped alive inside the rubble of Halifax.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

December 3

bhopalkillerDuring the early morning hours of 3 December 1984, a tank failure at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, spewed twenty-seven tons deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) fumes into the air, killing thousands within a few hours and leaving hundreds of thousands more with debilitating ailments, including liver and kidney failure, respiratory ailments, menstrual disorders and blindness. The precise number of deaths has remained in dispute -- Carbide and the state of Madhya Pradesh claim that 3800 died, while survivors of Bhopal have placed the figure closer to 8000 within the first few weeks. Municipal workers who disposed of the bodies in mass graves or funeral pyres claim that the initial death count was at least 15,000. Whatever the actual figures, the dying has continued ever since. Over the past 22 years, over 20,000 more residents of Bhopal have died as a direct consequence of the 1984 leak.

Although it originally functioned as a pesticide plant, the Union Carbide facility in Bhopal failed to meet its high expecations, as India's farmers quite simply could not afford to buy the company's products. Although pesticide production had ceased during the early 1980s, tanks loaded with poisons like MIC remained on site. Cost-cutting measures by Union Carbide contributed to the degradation of the numerous safety mechanisms designed to prevent toxic leaks. When an employee error -- which Union Carbide continues to insist was an act of "deliberate sabotage" -- allowed water to back up into tank E610, at least four systems, including a vent-gas scrubber that could have tetoxified the leaking gas, were either broken or switched off. The water caused the chemicals to overheat, releasing the dense gases into a city that was completely unprepared for a disaster of this scope. Indeed, most residents of Bhopal were unaware of the chemicals being stored in their midst; Union Carbide had not informed city authorities of the potential dangers of MIC, and they had not even bothered to formulate an emergency plan in the event of a disaster.

As the toxic cloud bloomed, its 900,000 residents were thrown into complete panic. According to Champa Devi Shukla, a resident of Bhopal who survived the night of December 3,
[i]t felt like somebody had filled our bodies up with red chillies, our eyes tears coming out, noses were watering, we had froth in our mouths. The coughing was so bad that people were writhing in pain. Some people just got up and ran in whatever they were wearing or even if they were wearing nothing at all. Somebody was running this way and somebody was running that way, some people were just running in their underclothes. People were only concerned as to how they would save their lives so they just ran.

Those who fell were not picked up by anybody, they just kept falling, and were trampled on by other people. People climbed and scrambled over each other to save their lives -- even cows were running and trying to save their lives and crushing people as they ran.
In 1989, Union Carbide agreed to a settlement that amounted to $470 million -- less than a sixth of what the original suit requested. The settlement provided roughly $300-500 to each victim, an amount equal to a year's medical expenses for many of the leak's victims. In 2002 Kathy Hunt, Public Affairs specialist for Dow Chemical insisted that $500 was "plenty good for an Indian" and that Dow would not assume responsibility for the people killed and sickened by the 1984 disaster. Dow had purchased Union Carbide in 2001 for more than $10 billion.

The contamination of Bhopal has lef t a pernicious legacy. Soil tests in 1999 revealed that mercury levels around the plant ranged from 20,000 to six million times the expected amounts; benzene hexachloride is abundant as well. Lead and organochlorines have been detected in the breast milk of mothers in Bhopal. Thousands of miscarriages and "monstrous biths" have occurred as well, and more than 50,000 Bhopalis are permanently disabled, unable to work or -- in many cases -- even leave their homes.

Warren Anderson, the CEO of Union Cabide in 1984, was indicted for manslaughter fifteen years ago. Arrested in India, he posted bail and absconded from the country. He now lives the life of a retired executive, with an exquisite home in the Hamptons.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

December 2

Twenty-six years ago today, four American women were murdered in El Salvador by officers of that country's National Guard -- victims in a civil war that would eventually claim over 70,000 lives. On the evening of December 2, Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, lay missioner Jean Donovan and Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazell were abducted near the San Salvador airport when Ford and Clarke returned from a Maryknoll conference in Managua, Nicaragua. Along with four other guardsmen in civilian clothing, Sergeant Luis Antonio Colindres Aleman followed the women in a military jeep and detained them. After interrogating the four women, Aleman ordered that the Americans be taken to a remote field about 15 miles from the airport, where they were to be "eliminated" on the instructions of his superior officer. Each was raped and shot in the head by men trained and armed by the United States. The bodies were dumped along the side of the road. The next morning, when the bodies were discovered, a local justice of the peace ordered that they be buried in shallow graves. On December 4, the four women were exhumed after Ambassador Robert White learned of the murders.

Catholic priests, nuns, and lay workers were frequently accused by the right-wing Salvadoran government of aiding communist guerillas during the decade-long civil war; religious workers -- particularly those from outside El Salvador -- were routinely arrested, harrassed, beaten and tortured for providing food, medical aid and other forms of relief to the tens of thousands of people displaced by the violence. Jean Donovan, one of the December 2 victims, frequently picked up bodies of peasants left by death squads on the roadsides near La Libertad, the village where she worked. Donovan and her colleagues understood that their lives were at risk each day they remained in El Salvador. During a liturgy held in Managua the night before she was killed, Ira Ford read a passage from one of Archbishop Oscar Romero's last homilies, delivered shortly before he was assassinated in March 1980:
Christ invites us not to fear persecution because, believe me, brothers and sisters, the one who is committed to the poor must run the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies: to disappear, be tortured, to be held captive -- and to be found dead
Under Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the United States provided material assistance and training to the Slavadoran military that killed Ford, Clarke, Donovan and Kazel. Two months after the deaths of the churchwomen, Secretary of State Alexander Haig urged Ambassador White to publicly congratulate the government of El Salvador for conducting a thorough and prompt investigation of the muders; Haig was hoping to put the matter to rest so that full military assistance to the Salvadoran military could be resumed.

Because the regime of Jose Napoleon Duarte was not in fact conducting such an investigation, however, White refused Haig's request. He soon became the first ambassador to be fired during the Reagan administration.