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The Iraqi Book of the Dead

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My friend Betsy just sent me an e-mail. "The news last night said that Iraqis are starting to turn against extremists and starting to fight Al-Qaeda...is this wishful thinking or are people really talking about this in Baghdad?" Are they talking about it? Yes and no. Yes, they are talking about it, but, no, it is not the major topic of conversation.

What everyone here in Baghdad is really talking about is DEATH. Death is everywhere here. It permeates the very air we breathe. It seeps into our conversations and into our dreams -- which explains why, since I have arrived in this country, I almost never sleep.

A CBS camera crew just wandered into the press room. "Have you ever been to an Iraqi morgue?" I asked one of the team.

"No, I have never been to a morgue. Morgues here are very dangerous places."

I was surprised. Why would a morgue be so dangerous? "Because the Shia go there to pick off the Sunnis who go there to claim dead relatives and the Sunnis go there to pick off the Shia who have also gone there to claim their dead." So. Death, if you are still looking around for thy sting, I guess your best bet of finding it would be in an Iraqi morgue.

Whenever American soldiers say goodbye to each other over here, they always say, "Take care." For Americans in Iraq, Death rides in every vehicle, haunts every road, lives in every hooch. It's life on the edge. One never knows.

When I first came to Iraq, I thought I was here to write stories. But now I think that I'm just here to be a witness -- a witness to the power of death. Make no mistake, boys and girls. The Grim Reaper is the real governor of Iraq no matter who sits in parliament or how fortified the Green Zone is. And, knowing that, my next question should be, "Will I die here too?" No, not me. I am immortal! I can't even imagine a world without out me. It's hard for any one to conceive of their own death.

But I know what the next question I should ask after that one should be. "How can the supposedly-idealistic United Nations, the supposedly-democratic United States, the supposedly-civilized European Union or even Russia or China allow a country to exist with Death as its commander-in-chief?" They overthrew Saddam here. They should overthrow Death too. But they won't. Instead, Death has been given permanent membership on the UN Security Council. Death is now a member of the G-8.

People here in Iraq talk about death all the time. It has become a permanent part of their lives. Death never gets invited to dinner. But he comes. He never gets any votes here but year after year he is re-elected. In this country, he's the one you go to if you want to get anything done. In Iraq, Death is the ultimate problem-solver. Betsy, the only way in the world that there will be any kind of truce between Al Qaeda, the Shia, the Sunni, the Americans, the Iraqi mafia, the fundamentalists, etc. is if they all get together and vote Death out of office. But that just isn't happening here -- and won't be happening any time soon.

PS: In case you might be wondering how death came to be so prevalent in Iraq, read Naomi Klein's latest article in Harpers regarding the role of "Disaster Capitalism" in world affairs. Read it from beginning to end. Print it out. Sleep with it under your pillow. And then get ready to welcome Death to your city or town too.

PPS: I'm finally scheduled to fly out of the Green Zone tonight! Anbar province, here I come -- that is, if Death doesn't roll out the welcome mat between now and then.

Disaster Capitalism: The new economy of catastrophe
http://www.harpers. org/archive/ 2007/09/00000000 010

By Naomi Klein October, 2007

Only a crisis -- actual or perceived -- produces change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.
-- Milton Friedman

Three years ago, when I was in Baghdad on assignment for this magazine, I paid an early-morning visit to Khadamiya, a mostly Shiite area. An Iraqi colleague had heard that part of the neighborhood had flooded the night before, as it did regularly. When we arrived, the streets were drenched in a slick green-blue liquid that was bubbling up from sewage pipes beneath exhausted asphalt. A family invited us to see what the frequent floods had done to their once lovely home. The walls were moldy and cracked, and every item -- books, photos, sofas -- were caked in the algae-like scum. Out back, a walled garden was a fetid swamp, with a child's swing dangled forlornly from a dead palm tree. "It was a beautiful garden, " Durdham Yassin, the owner told us. "I grew tomatoes."

For the frequent flooding, Yassin spread the blame around. There was Saddam, who spent oil money on weapons instead of infrastructure during the Iran-Iraq war. There was the first Gulf War, when U.S. missiles struck a nearby electricity plant, knocking out power to the sewage-treatment facility. Next came the year of U.S. -sponsored U.N. sanctions, when city workers could not replace crucial parts of the sewage system. Then there was the 2003 invasion, which further fried the electrical grid. And, more recently, there were companies like Bechtel and General Electric, which were hired to fix this mess, but failed.

Around the corner, a truck was idling with a large hose down a manhole. "The most powerful vacuum loader in the world," it advertised, in English, on its side. Yassin explained that neighbors had pooled their money to pay the company to suck away the latest batch of sludge, a costly but temporary solution. The mosque had helped, too. As we drove away, I noticed that there were similar private vacuum trucks on every other block. Later that day I stopped by Baghdad 's world-famous Green Zone. There, the challenge of living without functioning public infrastructure are also addressed by private actors. The difference is that in the Green Zone, the solutions actually work.

The enclave has its own electrical grid, its own phone and sanitation systems, its own oil supply, and its own state-of-the-art hospital with pristine operating theaters -- all protected by walls five meters thick. It felt, oddly, like a giant fortified Carnival Cruise ship parked in the middle of a sea of violence and despair, the boiling Red Zone that is Iraq . If you could get on board, there were poolside drinks, bad Hollywood movies, and Nautilius machines. If you were not among the chosen, you could get shot just for standing too close to the wall.

Everywhere in Iraq, the wildly divergent values assigned to different categories of people are on crude display, Westerners and their Iraqi colleagues have checkpoints at the entrances to their streets, blast walls in front of their houses, body armor, and private security guards on call at all hours. They travel the country in menacing armored convoys, with mercenaries pointing guns out the windows as they follow their prime directive to "protect the principal." With every move they broadcast the same unapologetic message: We are the Chosen , our lives are infinitely more precious than yours. Middle class Iraqis, meanwhile, cling to the next rung of the ladder: they can afford to buy protection from local militias, they are able to ransom a family member held by kidnappers, they may ultimately escape to a life of poverty in Jordan .

But the vast majority of Iraqis have no protection at all. They walk the streets exposed to any possible ravaging, with nothing between them and the next car bomb but a thin layer of fabric. In Iraq , the lucky get Kevlar, while the rest get prayer beads. Like most people, I saw the divide between Baghdad 's Green and Red zones as a simple byproduct of the war: this is what happens when the richest country in the world sets up camp in the poorest. But now, after years spent visiting other disaster zones, from posttsunami Sri Lanka to postKatrina New Orleans , I've come to think of these Green Zone/Red Zone worlds as something else: fast-forward versions of what "free market" forces are doing to our societies even in the absence of war.

In Iraq the phones, pipes, and roads had been destroyed by weapons and trade embargoes. In many other parts of the world, including the United States , they have been demolished by ideology, the war on "big government," the religion of tax cuts for the rich, the fetish for "privatization." When that crumbling infrastructure is blasted with increasingly intense weather, the effects can be as devastating as war.

Last February, for instance, Jakarta suffered one of these predictable disasters. The rains had come, as they always do, but this time the water didn't drain out of Jakarta 's famously putrid sewers, and half the city filled up like a swimming pool. There were mass evacuations, and at least fiftyseven people were killed. No bombs or trade sanctions were needed for Jakarta 's infrastructure to fail -- in fact, the steady erosion of the country's public sphere had taken place under the banner of "Free Trade." For decades, Washington-backed structural-adjustme nt programs had pampered investors and starved public services, leading to such cliches of lopsided development as glittering shopping malls with indoor skating rinks surrounded by moats of open sewers. Now those sewers had failed completely. In wealthier countries, where public infrastructure was far more robust before the decline began, it has been possible to delay think kind of reckoning. Politicians have been free to cut taxes and railed l against big government even as their constituents drove on, studied in, and drank from the huge public-works projects of the 1930s and 1940s.

But after a few decades, that trick stops working. The American Society of Civil Engineers has warned that the United States has fallen so far behind in maintaining its public infrastructure -- roads, bridges, schools, dams -- that it would take more than a trillion and a half dollars to bring it back up to standard. This past summer those statistics came to life: collapsing bridges, flooding subways, exploding steam pipes, and the still-unfolding tragedy that began when New Orleans levee broke.

After each new disaster, it's tempting to imagine that the loss of life and productivity will finally serve as a wakeup call, provoking the political class to launch some kind "new New Deal." In fact, the opposite is taking place: disasters have become preferred moments for advancing a vision of a ruthlessly divided world, one in which the very idea of a public sphere has no place at all. Call it disaster capitalism. Every time a new crisis hits -- even when the crisis itself is the direct result of free-market ideology -- the fear and disorientation that follows are harnessed for radical social and economic re-engineering. Each new shock is midwife to a new course of economic shock therapy. The end result is the same kind of unapologetic partition between the included and the excluded, the protected and the damned, that is on display in Baghdad . Consider the instant reactions to last summer's infrastructure disasters. Four days after the Minneapolis bridge collapsed, a Wall Street Journal editorial had the solution: "tapping private investors to build and operate public roads and bridges," with the cost made up from ever-escalating tolls....

Meanwhile in New Orleans , schools were getting ready to reopen for fall. More than half the city's students would be attending newly minted charter schools, where they would enjoy small classes, well-trained teachers, and refurbished libraries, thanks to special state and foundation funding pouring into what the New York times has described as "the nation's pre-eminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools." But charters are only for the students who are admitted to the system - an educational Green Zone. The rest of New Orleans public-school students -- many of them with special emotional and physical needs, almost all of them African American -- are dumped into the pre-Katrina system : no extra money, overcrowded classrooms, more guards than teachers. An educational Red Zone. Other institutions that had attempted to bridge the gap between super-rich and ultra-poor were also under attack: thousands of units of subsidized housing were slotted for demolition, and Charity Hospital , the city's largest public-health facility, remained shuttered.

.... "Our re-building work in Iraq is slowing down, and this has made some people available to respond to our work in Louisiana ," a company representative explained. Joe Albaugh, whose company, New Bridge Strategies, had promised to bring Wal-Mart and 7-Eleven to Iraq, was the lobbyist in the middle of many of the deals. The feeling that the Iraq war had somehow just been franchised were so striking that that some of the mercenary soldiers, fresh from Iraq , had a hard time adjusting.

When David Enders, a reporter, asked an armed guard outside a New Orleans hotel if there had been much action, he replied, "Nope. It's pretty Green Zone here." Since then, privatized disaster response has become one of the hottest industries in the South. Just one year after Hurricane Katrina, a slew of new corporations had entered the market, promising safety and security should the next Big One hit. One of the more ambitious ventures was launched by a charter air service in West Palm Beach, Florida Help Jet bills itself as "the world's first hurricane escape plan that turns a hurricane evacuation into a jet-setter vacation." When a storm is coming, the charter company books holidays for its members at five-star golf resorts, spas, or Disneyland. With the reservations made, the evacuee is then whisked out of the hurricane zone on a luxury jet. "No standing in lines, no hassle with crowds, just a first class experience that turns a problem into a vacation. Enjoy the feeling of avoiding the usual hurricane evacuation nightmare." For the people left behind, there is a different kind of privatized solution.

During the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, the U.S. government initially tried to charge American citizens for the cost of their own evacuation, though it was eventually forced to back off. If we continue in this direction, the images of people stranded on New Orleans rooftops will not only have been a glimpse of America's unresolved past of racial inequality but will have also foreshadowed a collective future of disaster apartheid, in which survival is determined primarily by one's ability to pay. Perhaps part of the reason so many of our elites, both political and corporate, are so sanguine about climate change is that they are confident they will be able to buy their way out of the worst of it. This may also partially explain why so many Bush supporters are Christian end-timers.

It's not just that they need to believe there is an escape hatch from the world they are systematically destroying. It's that the Rapture is a parable for what they are building down here on Earth -- a system that invites destruction and disaster, then swoops in with private helicopters and airlifts them and their friends to divine safety. As con-tractors rush to develop alternative stable sources of revenue, one avenue of business is in disaster-proofing other corporations. This was J. Paul Bremer's line of work before he became Bush's proconsul in Iraq: turning multi-nationals into security bubbles able to function smoothly even if the states in which they are doing business crumbles around them. The early results can be seen in the lobbies of many office buildings in New York or London -- airport-syle check-ins complete with photo-ID requirements and X-ray machines -- but the industry has far greater ambitions, including privatized global communications networks, emergency health and electricity services, and the ability to locate and provide trans-portation for a global workforce in the midst of a major disaster.

....In addition to reaping the short-term benefits of high prices linked to uncertainty in key oil-producing regions, the oil industry has consistently managed to turn disasters to its long term advantage, whether by ensuring that a large portion of the reconstruction funds in Afghanistan went into the expensive road infrastructure for a new pipeline - while most other major construction projects stalled -- or by pushing for a new investor-friendly oil law in Iraq while the country burned, or by piggy-backing on Hurricane Katrina to plan the first new refineries in the United States since the Seventies.

The oil and gas industry is so intimately entwined with the economy of disaster -- both as root cause behind many disasters and as a beneficiary of them -- that it deserves to be treated as an adjunct of the disaster-capitalism complex. The recent spate of disasters has translated into such spectacular profits that many people around the world have come to the same conclusion: the rich and powerful must be deliberately causing the catastrophes so that they can exploit them.

In July, 2006, a national poll of U.S. residents found that more than a third of respondents believe that the government had a hand in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop them. "Because they wanted war in the Middle East." Similar suspicions dog most catastrophes of recent years. In Louisiana in the aftermath of Katrina, the shelters were alive with rumors that the levees hadn't broken but had been covertly blown up in order to keep the rich areas dry while cleansing the city of poor people. In Sri Lanka , I often heard that the tsunami had been caused by underwater explosions detonated by the United States so it could send troops into Southeast Asia and take full control of the region's economies.

The truth is at once less sinister but more dangerous. An economic system that requires constant growth while bucking almost all serious attempts at environmental regulation generates a steady stream of disasters all on its own, whether military, ecological, or financial. The appetite for easy, short-term profits offered by purely speculative investment has turned the stock, currency, and real estate markets into crisis-creation machines, as the Asian financial crisis, the Mexican peso crisis, the dot-com collapse, and the subprime-mortgage crisis demonstrate.

Our common addiction to dirty, non-renewable energy sources keep other kinds of emergencies coming: natural disasters up 560% since 1975 and wars waged for control over scarce resources, which in turn spawn terrorist blowback -- a 2007 study calculated the number of terrorist attacks has increased seven-fold since the start of the Iraq war. Given the boiling temperatures, both climatic and political, future disasters need not be cooked up in dark conspiracies. All indications are that if we simply stay the current course, they will keep coming with ever more ferocious intensity. Disaster generation can therefore be left to the market's invisible hand. This is one area in which it actually delivers.

The disaster-capitalism complex may not deliberately scheme to create the cataclysms upon which it feeds -- though Iraq may be a notable exception -- but there is plenty of evidence that its component industries work very hard indeed to make sure that current disastrous trends continue unchallenged. Large oil companies have bankrolled the climate-change denial movement for years. Exxon-Mobil alone has spent an estimated $19 million on the crusade over the past decade.

....The creeping expansion of the disaster-capitalism complex into the media may prove to be a new kind of corporate synergy, one building in the vertical integration that became so popular in the nineties.

It certainly makes sound business sense. The more panicked our societies become, convinced that there are terrorists lurking behind every mosque, the higher the news ratings soar, the more biometric Ids and liquid-explosive detection devices the complex sells, and the more high-tech fences it builds. If the dream of the open, border-less "small planet" was the ticket to profits during the Clinton years, the nightmare of the menacing, fortressed Western continents, under siege from jihadists and illegal immigrants, plays the same role in the new millenium. There is only one cloud that looms over the thriving disaster economy -- from weapons to oil to engineering to surveillance to patented drugs. It is the threatening but unlikely scenario that this latest boom could somehow be interrupted by an outbreak of climatic stability and geopolitical peace.
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Stillwater is a freelance writer who hates injustice and corruption in any form but especially injustice and corruption paid for by American taxpayers. She has recently published a book entitled, "Bring Your Own Flak Jacket: Helpful Tips For Touring (more...)
 

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