Thursday, December 20, 2007

December 20

On this date in 1860, the state of South Carolina issued an ordinance to “dissolve the union” between itself and its 32 fellow states. The vote was 169-0. Summoned into existence by the South Carolina legislature on November 5 -- the day after Lincoln’s election to the presidency -- the “secession convention” gathered on December 17 and issued its infamous declaration three days later.
We, the people of the State of South Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, That the ordinance adopted by us in convention on the twenty-third day of May, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and also all acts and parts of acts of the General Assembly of this State ratifying amendments of the said Constitution, are hereby repealed; and that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of the "United States of America," is hereby dissolved.
At the bottom of South Carolina’s decision lay an unfounded concern that the federal government under Republican leadership might eradicate the institution of slavery, on which the plantation economy and the illusion of Southern white supremacy depended. No evidence existed to support such a conclusion, of course; the Republican Party was committed at the moment to nothing in principle except the exclusion of slavery from the Western territories. Without a federal amendment -- one that did indeed pass after 630,000 lives had been extinguished -- slavery in Lincoln’s America would have remained safely protected by a Constitution originally drafted with the interests of slaveholders at its heart.

The fire-eaters of South Carolina, however, looked upon the Republicans as a devious, sectional party that had risen to power for the sole aim of humiliating the South and threatening its “rights of property.” Four days after the secession ordinance had been issued, the state legislature clarified its decision by casting total blame upon the madmen of the North and their abolitionist minions.
Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
Describing the federal government as an “enemy” and proclaiming that the election of Lincoln amounted to a proclamation of “war” against slavery, the state of South Carolina chose to commit treason in defense of the principle of eternal black subjection.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

December 18

Poster08On 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.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

December 17

On this date in 1944, German soldiers slaughtered more than 80 American prisoners of war in a field at Baugnez, about two miles from the Belgian town of Malmedy. The Malmedy Massacre was only one of numerous similar atrocities committed by the Kampfgrupper Peiper, a unit from the 1st Panzer Division participating in the Battle of the Bulge, a month-long confrontation that marked the beginning of the end for German forces in Western Europe.

Named for its commander, Joachim Peiper, the kampfgrupper was supposed to secure a series of bridges along the Meuse River near the town of Huy; delayed by a combination of American resistance and bad roads, Peiper’s unit was already significantly behind schedule when it happened upon about a convoy of 120 Americans from the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. The US convoy was quickly captured and the men -- non-combat soldiers armed with pistols and knives -- taken into German custody. For the next several hours, the Americans were overseen by a revolving door of German units passing through the crossroads at Baugnez. For reasons that have never been adequately explained, German soldiers eventually opened fire on the prisoners, killing nearly all of them in the course of about 15 minutes.

Because the area around Malmedy remained no-man’s-land until mid-January, the bodies remained where they fell until a recovery effort could be assembled and the bodies retrieved from the snow that had buried them. About half of the bodies showed evidence of close-range gunshots to the head, indicating that the massacre had been systematic and deliberate. Peiper’s unit committed similar massacres over the next several days in in Stavelot, Cheneux, Stoumont and other Belgian towns where scores of civilians also died in German assaults.

Peiper and more than 70 other members of the 1st Panzer Division were eventually tried and convicted of the massacre at Malmedy. Forty-three of the defendants received death sentences, with the rest earning ten years to life in prison. The trials themselves became a source of controversy, with defendants accusing the US of harsh interrogation tactics and pre-trial irregularities that would never have stood in an ordinary American court. After conducting its standard post-trial review, an Army panel soon recommended that many of the death sentences be commuted. Among those whose sentences withstood scrutiny, no executions were ever administered, and within a decade all of the convicted soldiers had been released from prison -- one of the compromises deemed necessary to secure West Germany’s friendship during the Cold War.

In the meantime, the plight of the German soldiers had become a cause celebre for right-wing American anti-communists like Joseph McCarthy, who led a Senate investigation into the trial in 1949 and went so far as to accuse American soldiers of lying about the massacre itself. (McCarthy soon turned his attention to other projects.) Holocaust “revisionists” are also especially fond of the episode, which they claim was not a massacre at all but a simple accident of war. To them, Joachim Peiper is nothing less than a hero.

About fourteen years after his release from prison, Joachim Peiper moved to France. On Bastille Day 1976, he died in his home, which had been set ablaze by a petrol bomb of unknown origin.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

December 14

Like many of the tribes who inhabited lands claimed by the British, the Conestoga or Susquehannock were nearly eradicated by disease and warfare by the middle of the 18th century. An Iroquoian-speaking people who originally dominated a stretch of territory from present-day northern Virginia to southern New York, the Susquehannock nevertheless resisted efforts -- especially by the Mohawk -- to force them into the Iroquois Confederacy. Lacking European allies, however, and facing attacks from the Iroquois as well as from settlers in Maryland and Virginia, the Susquehannock were gradually subdued by 1676 and were brought under the jurisdiction of the Oneida and Mohawk.

Three decades later, a group of 300 Susquehannock were permitted by the Iroquois to return to southeastern Pennsylvania, where they settled in a village that came to be known as Conestoga, where they lived under a treaty of protection with the Quaker government of Pennsylvania. Over the next sixty years, the “Conestoga Indians” dwindled to less than two dozen members, all of whom had been converted to Christianity by Quaker missionaries. Following the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763, Indian uprisings -- none of which included the Indians of Conestoga -- inflamed the western frontier of British North America. Led by an assortment of tribes from the Great Lakes, Illinois and Ohio regions, “Pontiac’s War” threatened to spill into Pennsylvania, where Scots-Irish settlers were more than willing to take revenge on any available Indian target. Although the Conestoga Indians had not participated in any respect in the war, the so-called “Paxton Boys” -- a group of roughly 50 vigilantes -- descended on Conestoga.

Believing that the town’s inhabitants were secretly allied with the warring tribes, the Paxton Boys killed them all.

Benjamin Franklin described the first phase of the massacre, which began on this date in 1763.
. . . Fifty-seven Men, from some of our Frontier Townships, who had projected the Destruction of this little Common-wealth, came, all well-mounted, and armed with Firelocks, Hangers and Hatchets, having travelled through the Country in the Night, to Conestogoe Manor. There they surrounded the small Village of Indian Huts, and just at Break of Day broke into them all at once. Only three Men, two Women, and a young Boy, were found at home, the rest being out among the neighbouring White People,some to sell the Baskets, Brooms and Bowls they manufactured, and others on other Occasions. These poor defenceless Creatures were immediately fired upon, stabbed and hatcheted to Death! The good Shehaes, among the rest, cut to Pieces in his Bed. All of them were scalped, and otherwise horribly mangled. Then their Huts were set on Fire, and most of them burnt down. When the Troop, pleased with their own Conduct and Bravery, but enraged that any of the poor Indians had escaped the Massacre, rode off, and in small Parties, by different Roads, went home.
Two weeks later, the Paxton Boys found the remaining Conestoga villagers -- all fourteen of them -- and killed them in Lancaster. When more than a hundred other Indians from nearby villages fled to Philadelphia for protection, a smallpox outbreak killed dozens more.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

December 13

Ted Nugent -- rock guitarist, walking phallus and self-parodying right-winger -- turns 59 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.



Wednesday, December 12, 2007

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.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

December 11

mozote1Twenty-six 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 its victims remained unburied.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

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.



Thursday, December 06, 2007

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.



Tuesday, December 04, 2007

December 5

Strom Thurmond, one of the US Senate’s greatest sexual profligates and enduring racist icons, was born 105 years ago today.

As the Democratic governor of South Carolina, Thurmond joined fellow Negrophobe Fielding Wright -- a Democratic Congressman from Mississippi -- in a protest campaign intended to unseat fellow party member Harry Truman from the presidency in 1948. Truman, hoping to keep liberal voters from migrating to Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party, had nudged the Democrats ever so gently away from its 19th century herrenvolk roots, mostly by establishing a presidential commission to investigate the condition of civil rights in the US. Fearful that Truman would devote a second term to more specific, concrete devaluations of white privilege, nearly three dozen party delegates left the Democratic convention in Philadelphia and recast themselves under Thurmond’s leadership as the States’ Rights Democratic Party.

Warning that civil rights was the first step toward the creation of a “Police Nation” in the US, Thurmond rallied the Dixiecrats, who insisted that the nation’s “racial integrity” be preserved through segregation and anti-miscegenation statutes. Warning that the “nigger race” would never be admitted into his theaters, swimming pools, homes and churches -- he of course had little to say about the rules of entry to his bedroom -- Thurmond called upon the federal government to cease its interference with “individual rights” by mandating equality, a principle the party adamantly rejected.

Although the States’ Rights campaign failed in 1948, it did manage to dislodge four states from the “solid South,” taking South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi and nearly tossing the presidency to Thomas Dewey. Over the next several decades, the 1948 Dixiecrat walkout would be duplicated on a wider scale. As the national civil rights movement crested with the support of Democrats like Lyndon Johnson, Thurmond himself switched to the GOP and campaigned for Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. From the 1960s through the 1980s, disgruntled Southern white voters followed Thurmond and gradually migrated to the Republican Party, whose revanchist racial politics aimed to roll back the impact of a civil rights movement that Thurmond and others had been unable to prevent in the first place.

Over the rest of his career, Thurmond acquired an almost completely undeserved reputation as a convert to the mission of racial equality. Although he occasionally and vaguely congratulated African Americans for “developing” beyond the condition of menial servitude, he never actually repudiated his segregationist views, and his few moments of “enlightenment” -- voting, for instance, to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., with a federal holiday -- hardly compensate for his decades of sturdy labor on behalf of white supremacy.

During the summer of 2003, Thurmond at last ascended to the great Whites-Only swimming pool in the sky, several months after the most notorious birthday party in his unnecessarily long life.



December 4

Just before 5:00 a.m. on this date in 1969, more than a dozen Chicago police officers stormed a house on the city’s west side; among their targets was a young community activist and Black Panther Party member named Fred Hampton, whom one of the officers proceeded to kill with a pair of point-blank shots to the back of his head.

During the years leading up to his death, Hampton had migrated from the NAACP -- through which he worked as a youth organizer -- to the Black Panthers, a revolutionary Marxist party whose Illinois chapter Hampton helped found. Although Hampton, like most members of the BPP, believed in the inevitability of socialist revolution, he spent most of his time developing social welfare programs like the Breakfast For Children, which offered free meals to kids in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. And while the Panthers prepared for the international proletarian struggle by arming themselves, they did so while living within the realm of Mayor Richard J. Daley, a genuine thug whose police enforced an Alabama-style racial apartheid.

Not surprisingly, relations between the city’s police and black community were less than warm. Skirmishes between the CPD and the Black Panthers -- most of them provoked by the former -- had become routine during the second half of 1969; with the encouragement of the FBI, which regarded the Black Panthers as a grave domestic threat, the Chicago police sought to completely uproot the organization. Hampton, who quite probably had been drugged the night before his death by an FBI informant named William O’Neill, did not wake up when the special operations unit burst in to the apartment, nor did he stir when his friend and fellow Panther Mark Clark was shot and killed in the living room. Even several bullet wounds to the shoulder -- all fired by the Chicago police -- were insufficient to get Fred Hampton out of bed.

The Chicago police initially claimed that Hampton had been killed in the confusion caused by an intense, 10-minute gun battle between the police and the handful of black revolutionaries sleeping in Hampton’s apartment. As it turned out, only a single shotgun blast -- fired from Mark Clark’s gun as he died -- came from any of the Panthers or their friends. No one was ever charged in the killing of Hampton, though civil suits brought by the families of Hampton and Clark were eventually settled out of court.

Hampton, one of the most gifted community organizers of his generation, was only 21 when he died. Aside from the false claim that a sleeping Hampton and his colleagues had initiated a gun battle, no specific reasons were ever cited for the raid.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

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 23 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.



Sunday, December 02, 2007

December 2

elsal4Twenty-seven 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.

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