Tuesday, July 31, 2007

July 31

Free-market mystic Milton Friedman, guru of Thatcherism and Reaganism and all of its assorted ills, celebrated his final birthday -- his 94th -- one year ago today.

Although Friedman was often cited as a "Nobel Prize winner," there is in fact no such thing for economists. Friedman was actually the recipient of a quite distinct honor, the Bank of Sweden Prize in Memory of Alfred Nobel -- an award that is something of an employee-of-the-month trophy for monetarists. Although Friedman claimed some years ago that "my central theme in public advocacy has been the promotion of human freedom," his economic theories led him to support some of the most brutal economic and social transformations of the late 20th century. In particular, Friedman's "neoliberal" perspectives were adopted by the Chilean military junta that overthrew the democratically-elected Salvador Allende in 1973. While Friedman claimed not to have endorsed the coup or Augusto Pinochet's subsequent and abominable rule, in 1975 he made a pilgrimage to Chile and delivered a series of lectures endorsing precisely the sorts of economic "reforms" that Pinochet's Friedmanesque advisers -- the so-called "Chicago Boys" -- had undertaken, including the abolition of the minimum wage, the suspension of labor union rights, the privatization of the state pension system and its industrial base (with the exception of the copper mines, which funded the regime's grotesque military apparatus). Chile's economic fate under the Pinochet, described by Friedman as "miraculous," was catastrophic from 1973 through the mid-1980s, as the national debt soared, income disparities widened, industrial growth slowed to a crawl, and unemployment reached as high as 43%. Meantime, spending on health care crumbled, as cases of hepatitis, diabetes and typhus rippled across the country. Santiago assumed an ignominious position as one of the most polluted cities in the world, as the free market evidently demanded it must.

In May 2002, President George W. Bush honored Milton Friedman at a brief ceremony in the Eisenhower Office Building, where the aged economist was toasted for using "a brilliant mind to advance a moral vision: the vision of a society where men and women are free, free to choose, but where government is not as free to override their decisions." The president then cited Chile and the "Chicago Boys" as exemplars of Friedman's ideas at work in the world. Friedman died in November 2006.

Monday, July 30, 2007

July 30

In the midst of a devastating month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah, an Israeli airstrike in Qana, Lebanon leveled an apartment building one year ago today. Twenty-eight people died when the building collapsed; sixteen of the dead were children, the youngest of whom was a mere nine months old. Abbas Kassib, a resident of the farming village, helped dig the building’s victims from the rubble.
We heard the screams of one of the boys who was blown out of the building. He was alive but his legs were badly damaged and someone came out of the rubble with the boy's dead sister and laid her next to him. When we saw what had happened to the house we just all started digging with our hands or hoes, whatever we had, until the big machinery arrived.
Although the Israeli Defense Force initially claimed that the Qana bombings -- 80 separate strikes in all -- were a direct response to rocket attacks launched by Hezbollah fighters into northern Israel, conclusive evidence to support the claim was scarce. By the time a ceasefire took hold two weeks later, more than a thousand Lebanese had been killed, 30% of them children. In southern Lebanon, where all of the direct fighting took place, more than a million people had been displaced, while the infrastructure of much of the rest of the nation lay in ruins. Forty-three Israeli civilians, killed by Hezbollah rockets, joined 119 IDF soldiers cut down in the fighting, which ultimately cost the state of Israel $2-3 billion to wage.

Nearly seventy years earlier, on 30 July 1938, auto manufacturer Henry Ford accepted the Grand Cross of the German Eagle -- the most important Nazi honor that could be bestowed upon a non-German. An admirer of Ford’s, Adolf Hitler passed along the medal with a personal note of gratitude. Stung by criticism of his acceptance of the medal, Ford declared that
[m]y acceptance of a medal from the German people does not, as some people seem to think, involve any sympathy on my part with naziism. Those who have known me for many years realize that anything that breeds hate is repulsive to me.
Ford’s self-acquittals rang false. During the first World War, Ford had financed the distribution of The Protocols of the elders of Zion in the United States. His editorials in The Dearborn Independent, which blamed Jews for an array of global ills -- everything from the Bolshevik revolution to immoral popular films -- were later compiled into a book titled The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, a collection that Hitler used extensively in his own writings.

When Germany launched World War II a little more than a year after Ford’s acceptance of the Grand Cross, it did so with trucks and tanks and planes manufactured in Ford plants.

After the war, according to one acquaintance, Ford suffered a heart attack after being shown images from a German concentration camp.

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

July 29

Today is the birthday of Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, whose unfortunate mother brought the eventual fascist into the world on 29 July 1883. Shortly after his 39th birthday, Mussolini ascended to the office of prime minister, invited by King Victor Emmanuel III to form a government that would avoid the perils of communism and socialism. Mussolini, himself a former socialist party member, had broken with the movement during the Great War over the question of Italy’s involvement in the conflict -- involvement that Mussolini endorsed vigorously.

As founder of the Partito Nazionale Fascista, Mussolini organized a squad of goons known as the squadristi or camici nere (“blackshirts”) intimidated and brutalized anarchists, communists, trade union leaders, and political rivals, employing torture and terror to suppress opposition. By 1928, the Fascists stood as the sole legal political party in all of Italy, and the blackshirts had morphed into a violent secret police force. From there, things got considerably more ugly, as Mussolini concocted an imperialist foreign policy that led to a horrific and one-sided colonial war in Ethiopia, where Italian forces deployed chemical weapons and slaughtered insurgents and civilians in ghastly quantities.

When World War II erupted in the fall of 1939, Mussolini had just turned 56 years old -- a fact that Il Duce preferred to downplay because he disliked the idea of growing old. Less than a week before his 60th birthday, Benito Mussolni was removed from office and placed under house arrest at a resort in central Italy. Rescued by German commandos who flew gliders into the Apennine Mountains, Mussolini served the rest of his life as the head of an exiled puppet government in Northern Italy.

In late April 1945, Benito Mussolini was captured by his fellow Italians and executed by firing squad. His body, along with that of his mistress, was taken to Milan and displayed in public, suspended upside down on a meat hook.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

July 28

The Great Depression descended into state-sponsored violence on this date in 1932, as President Herbert Hoover oversaw the eviction of the Bonus Expeditionary Force (popularly known as the "Bonus Army") from its shantytown on the swampy flats of the Anacostia River, just southeast of the federal core in Washington, DC. The marchers, consisting of 15-20,000 Great War veterans and their families, had come to the nation's capital in June to ask for early payment of certificates worth roughly $1.00 for each day served during the war. The certificates were set to mature in 1945, but the Bonus marchers asked Congress to release the funds more than a decade early, when the veterans needed them most. Although the House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill to grant the veterans their wishes, the Senate defeated a similar measure by an overwhelming margin of 62-18. (The whole legislative drama was irrelevant, as Hoover most certainly would have vetoed any bill that made its way through Congress.) By this point, the BEF had set up a temporary camp on the Capitol grounds, and a number of demonstrators had occupied federal buildings that had been vacated for the hottest part of the summer.

On July 28, Herbert Hoover ordered his attorney general to remove all demonstrators from federal property. Although Hoover evidently did not want the Anacostia Flats encampment to be cleared, Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur, believed that communists were responsible for the demonstrations and that "the [bonus] movement was actually far deeper and more dangerous than an effort to secure funds from a nearly depleted federal treasury." Pursuing the war veterans across the river, MacArthur's infantry and cavalry units (including six tanks) trashed the Bonus encampment, scattering the marchers with fixed bayonets and tear gas, asphyxiating two infants. Hundreds of others were injured, and two veterants were shot.

Time magazine reported on one of the deaths:
When war came in 1917 William Hushka, 22-year-old Lithuanian, sold his St. Louis butcher shop, gave the proceeds to his wife, joined the Army... Last week William Hushka's Bonus for $528 suddenly became payable in full when a police bullet drilled him dead in the worst public disorder the capital has known in years.

This is a re-post of last year's entry

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Friday, July 27, 2007

July 27

On the fourth night of Operation Gomorrah -- the Allies’ July 1943 air assault on the German city of Hamburg -- a tornado of fire immolated tens of thousands of people, nearly all of whom were civilians.

Known by such variously understated terms as “area,” “strategic” or “morale bombing,” massive air campaigns became a general feature of World War II, used by all sides with an increasing lack of restraint or discrimination. Among its many unfortunate legacies, the second world war thus institutionalized a particular species of war crime to which the world has since become accustomed. The Hamburg raids were largely the concoction of Arthur “Bomber” Harris, squadron leader of the British Royal Air Force, who outlined his strategy to his six group commanders in a memo he composed two months prior to the raids:
The total destruction of this city would achieve immeasurable results in reducing the industrial capacity of the enemy's war machine. This, together with the effect on German morale, which would be felt throughout the country, would play a very important part in shortening and in winning the war.
Two decades earlier, Harris had led the destruction of Arab and Kurdish towns in Iraq, which Great Britain was trying to subjugate at the time. He bragged that within 45 minutes, a squadron could destroy an entire village and kill or injure a third of its inhabitants.

On the night of July 27, 1943, more than 700 aircraft heaved 9000 tons of bombs over Hamburg, turning the city into a blast furnace whose flames reached several kilometers into the air. Winds of up to 150 miles an hour, combined with temperatures that reached 1500 degrees, asphyxiated the city, liquefied the asphalt streets, and turned humans into matchsticks. Even air raid shelters provided no refuge, as the vacuum created by the firestorm sucked the oxygen from the tunnels. Many of the victims were coated in a residue of phosphorous, which could not be extinguished with water. Many survivors told stories of people in flames, jumping fruitlessly into the River Elbe, only to reignite when they resurfaced.

A German firefighter described the apocalyptic scene:
There was no smoke, only flames and flying sparks like a snowstorm. The heat melted the lens in my protective glasses. I saw a crowd of people lying and sitting on the street, moaning. They had given up. I joined them and lay down, put my steel helmet against the wind, and tried to suck oxygen from the pavement. My clothes kept catching fire and I had to beat the flames out.

The air was so hot it burned my windpipe. Everyone around me died. The clothing on the women was baked off them, leaving their bodies naked. The bodies didn't burn but dried out completely.
Of the more than 40,000 people who perished during Operation Gomorrah, nearly three-quarters were women and children. Their bodies -- at least the estimated 30% that had not been totally reduced to ash -- were bulldozed into a mass grave carved into the shape of a cross.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

July 26

Fifty years ago today, Carlos Castillo Armas was gunned down by a palace guardsman in Guatemala City, where he had ruled for three years as military dictator of a nation inching its way toward civil war. Castillo Armas, a former US-trained Guatemalan military officer who had already plotted -- unsuccessfully -- against his own government 1950, had fled to Honduras to escape arrest. There, he sold furniture and dreamed of returning home to crush the leftists he believed were ruining the land of his birth.

Backed by the United States, which objected among other things to the land reforms being carried out by president Jacobo Arbenz, Castillo Armas organized an army that eventually took control of Guatemala, deposing Arbenz in June 1954. By September, Castillo had been formally installed as president and immediately began a process of disenfranchising the population; before long, half of Guatemala had surrendered it right to vote. By revoking Decree 900, Castillo also forcefully removed tens of thousands of peasants from the lands they had acquired under the Arbenz government, and he established -- at the behest of the American CIA -- an organization that later became one of the first death squads in central America, the National Committee of Defense Against Communism. The Committee developed a list of 72,000 supposed “Communists” and began detaining suspects immediately under the Preventive Penal Law, which denied the accused of any rights to counsel or appeal.

Ironically, Carlos Castillo Armas came to be viewed by military rivals as being “soft” on communism. Although the Eisenhower administration pumped $80 million into Guatemala over the next three years, Castillo was unable to manage a failing economy and unable to quell widespread social discontent. Noting that Castillo was unlikely to remain in power for long, Keith Morgan observed in Harper’s magazine in July 1955 that “Guatemala may be caught in a revolving door.”

By the end of the decade, Morgan’s understated prediction turned out to be accurate. Castillo Armas was shot through the heart on his way to dinner on July 26, 1957. Over the next few months, four different successors held the office of president, some for as little as two days. From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala endured dozens of coups and counter-coups, as civil war took as many as 250,000 lives and displaced more than a million people.

Last year's entry:Nikephoros I and Ed Gein

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

July 25

On this date in 1969, Edward Kennedy appeared on national television to explain why he had left the scene of an accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne a week before. He was not, the senator insisted, drunk when his car toppled upside down into a pond.

Earlier that day, President Richard Nixon spoke informally to a group of reporters in Guam and outlined a set of skeletal priorities that would soon come to be known as the “Nixon Doctrine.” Elaborating on his stated goal of “Vietnamizing” the disastrous war in Southeast Asia, Nixon insisted that while the United States could not afford to withdraw from the Pacific Rim entirely, “regional pride” and nationalism among American allies would require a more careful approach to foreign policy:
Asians will say in every country that we visit that they do not want to be dictated to from the outside, Asia for the Asians. And that is what we want, and that is the role we should play. We should assist, but we should not dictate.

. . . [As] far as our role is concerned, we must avoid that kind of policy that will make countries in Asia so dependent upon us that we are dragged into conflicts such as the one that we have in Vietnam.
The United States, Nixon explained, would assist its friends in waging war against “internal subversion” but would not “fight the war for them.” In applying the Nixon Doctrine to the American war in Vietnam, the president did so with his characteristic illegality and viciousness. Over the next four years, as the US gradually withdrew ground troops, Nixon escalated the catastrophic air war while expanding it into Cambodia and Laos; he ordered the mining of North Vietnamese harbors and considered bombing its dams; and he presided over the entombment of 20,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Asians, whose deaths forestalled -- for six years at most -- the reunification and Communist takeover of Vietnam.

Meantime, as the forces of “internal subversion” imperiled the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf region, the Nixon Doctrine supplied the rationale for extending billions of dollars in military hardware and training to the House of Saud and the Shah of Iran, whose nations -- gurgling with petrodollars -- were expected to remain obedient, iron-fisted regional proxies for decades to come.

This is a re-posting of last year's entry.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

July 24

On this date in 1915, the S.S. Eastland capsized in the Chicago River with 2500 passengers, a third of whom drowned in a mere 20 feet of water. Most of the dead were employees and family members of employees who worked for the Western Electric Company, which was sponsoring a Saturday picnic on Michigan Island, Indiana. The 845 lives lost that morning represent the greatest American disaster of the 20th century.

A tour vessel owned by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship company, the Eastland had displayed chronic listing problems since being commissioned 13 years before. Ironically, safety legislation passed after the Titanic disaster worsened the ship’s stability problems by requiring that all vessels -- including Great Lakes steamships -- be fitted with a full complement of lifeboats. When the picnic-goers boarded on July 24, 1915, many of them gathered on the starboard side to bid farewell; hundreds of others, taking shelter from the day’s wind and drizzle, descended below deck. As the ship lurched suddenly onto its side, everyone below the deck was trapped. Although a few managed to escape, most did not.

Harlan Babcock, who worked for the Chicago Herald and witnessed the event, described it years later as one of the worst moments of his life.
Never to my dying day shall I forget the supreme horror of that moment. Men, women and children, who a moment before had been laughing and shouting messages to one another on board the Eastland and to friends on shore, were hurled by the hundreds into the Chicago River.

As the vessel top-heavily careened on its side, screams and wails, sobs and pitiful prayers came from those on the upper deck. They were hurled off like so many ants being brushed from a table.

The boat went over so quickly that scores who were sitting in chairs on deck did not have time to rise but were shot into the river. In an instant, the surface of the river was black with struggling, crying, frightened, drowning humanity. Infants floated about like corks.

Cries of 'Help' from those in the water filled the air. Many sank instantly. Others turned white, lifting imploring faces toward the panic-stricken crowd on the nearby Clark Street Bridge and piers. But before help could reach them, they too sank.

I was chilled by the harvest of death.
Among those harvested that morning were Edward Bartlett, a 55-year-old bartender; Louise Schmidt and Frank Selig, both 19 years old and engaged to be married; the entire family of George and Adelle Sindelar, including their five children; Henry Thyer and his 9-year-old daughter Emily; and James William Holdsworth, a 68-year-old machinist who became the Eastland’s oldest victim. Mary Braitsch, one of the more than 1600 survivors, lost her entire family -- husband John, an electrical toolmaker, her son Frederick (9) and daughters Anna (17), Gertrude (11), Hattie (7) and Marie (5 months).

Over the years, stories accumulated about the lucky ones who for one reason or another were not on board when disaster struck. Sam Dewbray and his wife were among the many passengers who never boarded the Eastland. They were planting lilac bushes and arrived late. Herman and Elsie Francke, a young married couple, disembarked shortly before the ship capsized. Elsie, who was feeling severe nausea, turned out to be pregnant. Edward Peternell, who worked for the Western Electrical Company, bailed out on the picnic at the last minute to meet his girlfriend, a young woman named Susan Jordan. His brother Joseph, who did not have a date, boarded the Eastland and perished.



Monday, July 23, 2007

July 23

Today is the 40th anniversary of the start of the Detroit uprisings, which over the course of five days took 43 lives and injured more than a thousand while causing at least $40 million in damage. The city has still not recovered from the events of July 1967.

While the riots were sparked by a single event -- the arrest of more than 80 black patrons of an illegal saloon -- the roots of the conflict can be traced to the evacuation of the auto industry as well as severe overcrowding and impoverishment in Detroit’s black communities. By the mid 1960s, Detroit was in a state of pronounced crisis, as rapid demographic and economic transition destabilized the city. For African Americans, conditions were exceptionally bad. Moreover, the nearly all-white Detroit police department had established an elite unit known as the “Tac Squad,” which focused its attention on prostitution and illegal bars in the black neighborhood along 12th street, the eventual epicenter of the riots. The Tac Squad verbally and physically harassed residents of the community, arresting those who were not carrying proper identification. The conduct of the police was so notorious that blacks surveyed by the Free Press in the spring of 1967 listed police brutality as the greatest problem they faced in Detroit.

Two days after the 12th street neighborhood erupted in violence on July 23, President Lyndon Johnson sent 400 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne as well as 8000 National Guardsmen to suppress the violence. Coleman Young, a Michigan state senator who would later serve as mayor of Detroit, characterized what followed as a “police riot.” Nearly half of those killed were shot by police, soldiers and guardsmen; most of these were shot in the back, and nearly all were unarmed.

Among the dead were 23-year-old Nathaniel Edmonds, who was shot in his backyard by a white man who accused him of looting his store; William Jones, shot by Detroit police officers while looting a liquor store; Julius Lawrence, a 26-year old white man shot by police while he and some friends were trying to steal a car from a junkyard; Roy Banks, a 46-year old black man who was mistaken for a sniper; Charles Kemp, 18, shot by police for looting five packs of cigars; and Tanya Blanding, a 4-year old girl shot through the window her apartment by a National Guardsman, who fired when he saw a small flash that turned out to be a relative lighting a cigarette.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

July 19

Lizzie Andrew Borden emerged into the world on this date in 1860; about three weeks after her 32nd birthday, Borden discovered the body of her father, Andrew, on a couch in their home at Fall River, Massachusetts. Contrary to popular rhyme, Mr. Borden had not suffered “forty-one” whacks with a hatchet. The eleven he did sustain, however, were quite fatal -- including the one that split his eye and another than severed his nose. The body of Abby Borden, which bore nineteen distinct wounds to the head and neck, was discovered upstairs in her bed a short while later.

Lizzie Borden, who was always the most likely suspect, was charged with the murders and acquitted by an all-male jury in June 1893.

Less fortunate in their own trials, five women from the town of Salem, Massachusetts -- Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Good and Sarah Wildes -- were hanged for witchcraft on 19 July 1692. Nurse, who hailed from a prominent family and was one of the most respected women in the community, had been accused by one Sarah Holton of putting a lethal hex upon her husband, Benjamin, several years before. According to Holton, Nurse came to their farmhouse one Saturday and scolded Benjamin about his pigs, which she claimed had gotten into her fields. The argument went nowhere, as Benjamin Holden insisted his pigs were adequately yoked and had not left their pen. After Nurse left, Sarah Holden claimed, her husband
was taken with a strainge fitt . . . being struck blind and stricken down two or three times so that when he came to himself he tould me he thought he should never have com into the house any more: and all summer affter he continewed in a languishing condition being much pained at his stomack and often struck blind: but about a fortnight before he dyed he was taken with strange and violent fitts acting much like out poor bewicthed parsons when we thought they would have dyed and the Doctor. that was with him could not find what his distemper was: and the day before he dyed he was very chearly but about midnight he was againe most violently sezed upon with violent fitts tell the next night about midnight he departed this life by a cruel death.
On the basis of these and other implausible scraps of “evidence,” Nurse was arraigned and charged with the crime of witchcraft. Tried by a jury, she was initially acquitted on June 30. When the verdict was announced, 12-year-old Ann Putnam and several other girls who had brought forth accusations against Nurse collapsed and howled in pain, insisting that Nurse was somehow afflicting them. The judge then asked the jury to reconsider their decision, which they subsequently did.

Fourteen years after helping to send twenty people to an early grave, Ann Putnam apologized publicly for her role in the witchcraft hysteria. She had, she ruefully observed, been “deluded by Satan.”

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

July 18

On 18 July 1971, on the 1,907th anniversary of the Great Roman Fire, my wife was born; she shares her birthday with Hunter S. Thompson, who blew his brains out with a rifle in the fall of 2005. On Hunter Thompson’s 12th birthday in 1925, the memoirs of a German prisoner named Adolf Hitler appeared in print for the first time. Among other subjects, Mein Kampf mused at length about something the author described as “the Jewish peril.”

On July 18, 1982 the President of Guatemala, Gen. Rios Montt, explained his own stark domestic policies to a nation that was enduring its fourth decade of civil war. “If you are with us,” Gen. Montt explained, “we'll feed you; if not, we'll kill you.” Indeed, during his two-year rule, Gen. Montt’s paramilitary death squads killed tens of thousands of mostly indigenous Guatemalans who insisted on feeding themselves. Among those who died at Montt’s hands were hundreds of villagers at Plan de Sanchez, who were cut down just hours after Mott’s callous remarks.

According to a 2004 report on the massacre by the Inter-American Court on Human rights, Montt’s forces
separated the children and the young women aged from about 15 to 20. Then the massacre began. First they tortured the old people, saying they were guerrillas, then they threw two grenades and fired their guns. Finally they sprayed petrol around and set fire to the house… [The next day, Buenaventura Manuel Jeronimo] emerged from his hiding place to see the destruction they had caused. Along with Eulalio Grave Ramírez and his brothers Juan, Buenaventura, and Esteban, they put out the flames that were still consuming the bodies. Those that weren't totally charred showed signs of torture, as did the naked bodies of the youngest women.
Jeronimo told a reporter two decades later that the terror continued for days after the killings stopped:
We survivors hid in the forests those nights, as soldiers were still patrolling, looking for any villager they could find. In the night, dogs would come and eat at the bodies of our loved ones. We would try and bury them, but we didn't have enough time, and still the dogs would come, dig them up, and eat at them.
Predictably, US president Ronald Reagan celebrated the anti-communist sensibilities of Gen. Montt, who was an evangelical Christian minister and a personal friend of both Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

“President Ríos Montt,” Reagan explained, “is a man of great personal integrity and commitment . . . . I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.”

Two years after the Plan de Sanchez massacre, a mentally distressed, unemployed security guard named James Oliver Huberty told his wife that “society had its chance” before leaving their house just before 4:00 p.m. on July 18, 1984. Carrying two semiautomatic weapons and a shotgun, Huberty then walked into a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro, California and opened fire. After 77 minutes and nearly 300 rounds of ammunition, 21 people were dead and 19 others wounded. The killings ended when a police sniper shot Huberty in the head. At the time, it was the worst mass killing by a single gunman in US history.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

July 17

On 17 July 1791 -- two years to the day after he proposed the tricolor cockade that would serve as the basis for the modern French flag -- Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, presided over one of the most notorious and consequential massacres in his nation’s history. For several days prior to the killings, tens of thousands of Parisians had gathered in the Champ de Mars to petition for the abdication of King Louis XVI. In response to these public demonstrations -- which the authorities feared might provoke radical uprisings against the monarchy and the National Assembly -- Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the mayor of Paris, declared martial law and ordered the crowds dispersed.

Carrying out his orders, Lafayette, the national hero who had been tapped as Commander in Chief of the National Guard, led three columns of soldiers toward the unarmed masses who had assembled near the “altar of the fatherland.” Many Parisians were drawn to the Champ de Mars by the declaration of martial law, which they apparently did not believe could be enforced against a crowd so large. Harassed by the angry demonstrators and pelted by stones and clumps of mud, the soldiers opened fire on Lafayette’s orders, killing scores of people. Implausibly, some partisans claimed at the time that 10,000 had perished; historians generally believe the actual number was around 50.

A sympathetic French historian, writing in the mid-19th century, described the aftermath of the massacre as a mixture of despair, melodrama and heroism.
In an instant the Champ-de-Mars was cleared, and nought remained on it save the dead bodies of women, and children, trampled under foot, or flying before the cavalry; and a few intrepid men on the steps of the altar of their country, who, amidst a murderous fire and at the cannon’s mouth, collected, in order to preserve them, the sheets of the petition, as proofs of the wishes, or bloody pledges of the future vengeance, of the people . . . .
The course of the French Revolution, which was already beginning to unravel, only grew more violent in subsequent years; when the Jacobins took full control of the revolution in 1792, Lafayette fled the country and spent several years in Austrian and Prussian prisons before returning to France during the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. Americans, who remembered fondly Lafayette’s contributions to their own revolution, eventually rewarded him with a massive land grant and a $200,000 gift.

Two years after the bloodbath at the Champ de Mars, the assassin Charlotte Corday -- who famously slew the Jacobin journalist Jean-Paul Marat as he lay in his bathtub -- surrendered her head at the guillotine. Her executioner then lofted her head in the air and slapped it, an indignity that earned him several months in prison. Corday’s body, like so many others during the Reign of Terror, was dumped in a trench and buried. The whereabouts of her head has never been determined.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

July 16

On this date in 1945, the first atomic weapon in history was detonated in the New Mexican sands. The explosion -- nicknamed “Trinity” in reference to several poems by John Donne -- took place at 5:30 a.m. at the Alamogordo Bombing Range, 120 miles southeast of Albuquerque, where the equivalent of 20 kilotons of TNT opened up an irradiated crater of glass ten feet deep and several hundred yards wide.

The weapon, which would be deployed against human beings less than a month later, amazed each of the 300 observers who witnessed its inauguration. Brigadier General Henry Farrell, deputy to Major General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, described the Trinity shot as “magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying.” In the Smyth Report, released to the public just days after the obliteration of Nagasaki, Farrell explained that
[n]o man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before. The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. It was that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately. Thirty seconds after, the explosion came first, the air blast pressing hard against the people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to the Almighty. Words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, mental and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized.
One witness, the physicist and Manhattan Project's scientific director J. Robert Oppenheimer, claimed years later that the explosion reminded him of a line from Vishnu in the Hindu sacred text Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."

For the next four years, the United States enjoyed a monopoly on this newest weapon of mass destruction -- a monopoly it eventually surrendered on 29 August 1949, when the Soviet Union successfully completed “Joe One,” a 22-kiloton test modeled on the Trinity explosion. By the end of the 20th century, Great Britain, France, China, Israel, India and Pakistan would join the nuclear club; to this date only South Africa and three of the former Soviet Republics have dismantled atomic weapons, with which they had previously sought to deter or coerce their rivals.

As of today, roughly 12,000 active warheads -- all of them, like Vishnu, becoming death -- continue to menace the planet.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

July 13

The disintegration of Yugoslavia during the 1990s spurred unthinkable degrees of violence, as religious and ethnic rivalries drove nearly everyone to madness. Arguably the worst of the bloodshed occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where ethnic Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks (often referred to as “Bosnian Muslims”) struggled for territory and their own lives over the course of the first half of the decade.

Of particular importance in the Bosnian War were the eastern regions of the country, which bordered on the new nation of Serbia. Led by certifiable lunatics who were determined to depopulate those areas of all non-Serbian peoples, the army of the Republica Srpska -- one of the two political regions with Bosnia -- worked with Serb paramilitaries and managed by 1993 to isolate three small Bosniak enclaves surrounding the towns of Gorazde, Zepa, and Srebrenica. Terrified of what might come, civilians fled these regions en masse; although the United Nations declared Srebrenica to be a “safe area” in April 1993, the Serbian forces gradually strangled it, cutting off relief convoys delivering food, drinking water and fuel. United Nations forces were helpless to prevent the situation from deteriorating.

In March 1995, Republika Srpska president Radovan Karadzic issued an order known as “Directive 7,” which coldly ordered the his army (the VRS) to “create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica.” By July, VRS forces led by Ratko Mladic moved into Srbrenica. As the “safe area” disintegrated, tens of thousands of Bosniaks fled their villages. More than 10,000 others -- mostly men -- attempted to flee Srebrenica by forming a column and marching through the hills toward Tuzla. Two thirds of these refugees never made it to safety, having been killed, captured or trapped behind Serbian lines.

Others sought refuge at the UN compound in Potocari, where lightly armed Dutch troops were stationed. Hasan Nuhanovic, a Bosniak who worked as a UN translator,
Some of them were allowed to come inside. But most of them were actually forced to remain outside the U.N. base. That was a decision of the Dutch battalion. They closed the gate. They sealed a hole in the fence. So about 5,000 or 6,000 people were inside the base, and about 20,000 people were outside the base. If you were inside the base, you were safe because the Serbs did not do anything bad to the people inside the base. I heard about killings happening outside the base. I heard screams and shots. I was afraid, of course, for my family, my parents and my brother -- if they stepped outside the base, they were going to be killed. So I tried to keep them inside the base.
Unable and unwilling to accommodate all the refugees, the Dutch watched as Bosniaks -- lacking adequate food and water and practically melting in the heat -- camped in the fields, warehouses and factories surrounding Potocari. Eventually, the Dutch troops forced the Bosniak refugees to leave the UN base.

On 13 July 1995, Srebrenica Genocide began in earnest as Directive 7 was pushed to its logical conclusion. Captured Bosniaks, as well as those cowering in Potocari, were herded by the VRS and paramilitaries from neighboring Serbia onto trucks and buses. Driven to scattered, isolated locations, the prisoners were summarily shot and their bodies were dumped into mass graves. Others, including as many as 1500 men being held at in the town of Kravica, were killed in warehouses, schools and gymnasia.

Within 10 days, as many as 10,000 Bosniaks perished. To date, fewer than 4000 bodies have been recovered. Although numerous convictions have been handed down by an international war crimes tribunal, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic remain at large.



Thursday, July 12, 2007

July 12

On this date in 1917, in one of the more remarkable vigilante actions in the history of the American labor movement, more than a thousand “deputies” wearing white armbands rounded up nearly 1200 residents of Bisbee, Arizona and deported them by train to a remote town in New Mexico. Their crime, so to speak, was to have struck against the copper mines that enriched the shareholders and executives of companies like Phelps Dodge.

The western mine fields had been an especially fierce battleground for decades, as workers chafed against the grip of companies that paid them poorly, recklessly endangered their lives, and pitted them against each other on the basis of race and national origin. These companies likewise owned the houses where workers lived, the stores where they shopped, and the newspapers that lectured them regularly on their obligations to the company. The mainstream labor movement, best represented by the American Federation of Labor, generally ignored miners, who found support instead from more politically radical unions like the Western Federation of Miners and the Industrial Workers of the World.

As the Great War churned onward and the price of copper tripled, Arizona’s mine workers -- backed by the IWW -- escalated their demands for better pay, improved working conditions and anti-discrimination measures intended to reduce ethnic and racial rivalries. When those demands were refused, half the workforce of Bisbee walked off the job. Over the next two weeks, rumors circulated that the strikers and the IWW had been infiltrated by German saboteurs and spies. On July 12, sheriff Harry Wheeler announced that he had summoned more than 1000 “loyal Americans” from Bisbee and Douglas
for the purpose of arresting, on charges of vagrancy, treason and of being disturbers of the peace of Cochise County, all those strange men who have congregated here from other parts and sections for the purpose of harassing and intimidating all men who desire to pursue their daily toil. I am continually told of threats and insults heaped upon the working men of this district by so-called strikers, who are strange to these parts, yet who presume to dictate the manner of life of the people of this district.
Armed members of the hastily assembled Citizen’s Alliance rousted striking workers -- and anyone else they could get their hands on -- and marched them from town, after which they were loaded into manure-filled boxcars and hauled away to the desert of southern New Mexico.

Until the mass evacuation of Japanese Americans from their communities during World War II, the “Bisbee deportation” represented the greatest violation of civil liberties in the history of the American West.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

July 11

Until Dick Cheney peppered Harry Whittington’s face with birdshot a year and a half ago, July 11 was the only date on which someone had been shot by an American Vice President. On that morning in 1804, Alexander Hamilton took a bullet in the abdomen from Aaron Burr, who fired the fatal slug during their famous duel at Weehawken, New Jersey. Burr, who blamed Hamilton for his assorted political woes -- including Burr’s loss in the recent New York gubernatorial election -- had challenged the former treasury secretary to the chivalrous contest after Hamilton refused to disavow the many public and private insults he’d lobbed against Burr’s character.

A month after the affair, Dr. David Hosack, Hamilton’s physician and professor of medicine and botany at Columbia College, described the aftermath of the duel in a letter to William Coleman, a former law partner of Burr’s and a friend of the deceased:
When called to him upon his receiving the fatal wound, I found him half sitting on the ground, supported in the arms of Mr. Pendleton. His countenance of death I shall never forget. He had at that instant just strength to say, “This is a mortal wound, doctor;” when he sunk away, and became to all appearance lifeless. I immediately stripped up his clothes, and soon, alas! ascertained that the direction of the ball must have been through some vital part.
Indeed, the ball had pierced Hamilton’s liver and spine. The pain, one surmises, must have been excruciating.

John Quincy Adams, whose father happened to be one of Alexander Hamilton’s greatest political enemies, happened to turn 37 years old that day, but the wounded duellist did not actually give up the ghost until the next day.

Less than a century later, on 11 July 1897, a Swedish engineer named Salomon August Andrée lifted off from the Arctic island of Spitzbergen in a hydrogen balloon named the Ornen (“Eagle”). Amazingly, Andree hoped to float his way across the geographic North Pole on his way to either Russia or Canada; polar expeditions were all the rage during the latter decades of the 19th century, and by joining the pointless quest, the Swede hoped to earn individual fame while plumping his nation’s self-esteem.

Two days after ascending into the air, Andee and his two companions (Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel) crashed, their insufficient supplies scattering across the ice pack. For the next three months, the men trudged southward. Suffering from dehydration, vitamin deficiencies and possible trichinosis -- which would have been contracted from eating undercooked polar bear meat -- the three men perished sometime in early October, having reached the island of Kvitoya. Their bodies, diaries and photographs of the doomed expedition were not recovered for more than three decades.

Celebrated during his era as a national hero, S. A. Andree is now widely regarded as a vainglorious fool.



Tuesday, July 10, 2007

July 10

Ambiguity continues to surround the question of precisely who ordered and oversaw the massacre Polish Jews in the town of Jedwabne, sixty-six years ago today. In late June and early July of 1941, as German forces overwhelmed the eastern regions of Poland and pushed back their Soviet adversaries, thousands of Jews in towns like Bialystok and Radzilow were massacred by SS officers and ordinary Poles, who participated eagerly in the slaughter of their neighbors. On July 10 in Jedwabne, a small farming town in northeastern Poland, hundreds -- perhaps as many as 1600 -- Jews were burned alive in a barn on the edge of town. For decades afterward, Polish historical memory assigned total blame for the massacre on the German Einsatzgruppen, relieving Poles of blame which they most certainly shared with the SS.

German troops had occupied the city since the last week of June, and in the meantime hundreds of Jews from Wizna and Radzilow had taken refuge in Jedwabne, even as local Jews were beaten and murdered by their fellow townspeople. According to Jewish eyewitnesses, on the morning of the massacre, Polish peasants arrived by the cartload from surrounding farms and villages, as if they were going to market. Wielding axes, nail-studded boards and other weapons, the hooligans rounded up the town’s Jewish population and forced them to weed the public streets and walkways.

Rivka Fogel was one of the few who managed to survive the massacre. As she recalled forty years later,
[t]he Jews were kept in the hot sun from eleven in the morning until that evening. They selected forty people at a time and sent them to the cemetery where they were forced to dig ditches in which they were buried alive. In the market place the goyim put Lenin's statue on a board, and forced the Jews to carry it and sing Bolshevik songs. They put a big stone on the head of Rabbi Avigdor Bialystocki and made him carry it through the market place. The goyim grabbed Yudke Nadolnie's daughter Gitele, cut off her head and played with it as if it was a ball. Before nightfall, a man by the name of Weshilewski came and proclaimed the death sentence upon all the Jews by burning them at stake. He further said, “Because you are decent Jews, we therefore have chosen for you an easy way to die.” They had already prepared cans of benzine and ordered the Jews to move on to the cemetery. The goyim, with guns in their hands, beat and killed right and left and then after finally overpowering all of them, pushed the Jews into Shelansky's barn which was near the cemetery. They then poured benzine onto the barn and ignited it. From where we were hidden, we saw and heard the crying and lamentations of the suffering people before they died.
Except in memory, no trace of the Jewish community in Jedwabne survived the war.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

July 9

Today is the 89th anniversary of one of the worst train disasters in American history. On the morning of 9 June 1918, two passenger trains from the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad collided along a stretch of single track in Nashville, killing at least a hundred people, many of whom were soldiers and black factory workers mobilized for the Great War. The accident took place a mere eight minutes after the local train No. 4 departed from Union Station, several minutes behind schedule; the No. 1, arriving from Memphis on its way to Atlanta, was itself 35 minutes late. The crew of the No. 1 train erroneously believed they had already passed the No. 4 and thus did not stop before reaching a ten-mile stretch of single track leading into Nashville.

When the trains met at Dutchman’s Grade -- a sharply curved section of track known for its poor visibility -- each was traveling at nearly 60 miles an hour. The wooden cars collapsed into each other, spraying bodies and parts of bodies in all directions. The sound of impact, which could be heard for several miles, drew tens of thousands of gawkers to the scene as the dead and wounded were retrieved from the wreckage.

Postal workers reported that the mail recovered from the accident was speckled with flesh and bone. Because they were assumed to be less squeamish than other Nashvillians, local butchers were enlisted to cut the bodies of the dead from the mangled cars.