Monday, March 07, 2005

Checkpoint Etiquette

Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena arrived in Rome SaturdayBy now, we've all heard about the Italian journalist, held hostage, who was released, only to be shot by American troops.  The Christian Science Monitor has an article written by an American journalist in Iraq.  She described the situation at many checkpoints; this helps us understand how these unfortunate events occur.  It turns out that part of it is a cultural difference.  Under Saddam, driving slowly would attract unwelcome attention.  The best way to avoid notice was to drive fast.  This, of course, is the opposite of what people in the US do: when we see a police car, we slow down.  Her narrative explains the cultural difference.

What Iraq's checkpoints are like
Annia Ciezadlo
March 07, 2005

[...] If it's confusing for me - and I'm an American - what is it like for Iraqis who don't speak English?

In situations like this, I've often had Iraqi drivers who step on the gas. It's a natural reaction: Angry soldiers are screaming at you in a language you don't understand, and you think they're saying "get out of here," and you're terrified to boot, so you try to drive your way out.

I remember one terrifying day when my Iraqi driver did just that. We got to a checkpoint manned by Iraqi troops. Chatting and smoking, they waved us through without a glance.

Relieved, he stomped down on the gas pedal, and we zoomed up to about 50 miles per hour before I saw the second checkpoint up ahead. I screamed at him to stop, my translator screamed, and the American soldiers up ahead looked as if they were getting ready to start shooting.

After I got my driver to slow down and we cleared the second checkpoint, I made him stop the car. My voice shaking with fear, I explained to him that once he sees a checkpoint, whether it's behind him or ahead of him, he should drive as slowly as possible for at least five minutes.

He turned to me, his face twisted with the anguish of making me understand: "But Mrs. Annia," he said, "if you go slow, they notice you!"

This feeling is a holdover from the days of Saddam, when driving slowly past a government building or installation was considered suspicious behavior. Get caught idling past the wrong palaces or ministry, and you might never be seen again. [...]
This report illustrates two things.  For one, cultural differences show up in surprising ways.  Perhaps this could be addressed by hiring more anthropologists.  For another, unfortunate incidents are inevitable when you have a lot of nervous people with big guns.  The best way to prevent this kind of thing is to not start wars unnecessarily. 

Some critics may say that this shows how poorly the occupation was planned.  Personally, I don't think it was planned badly -- from the point of view of those who did the planning.  We know they spent lots of time planning it, probably more than two years.  Some readers are familiar with the fact that "Plans for post-Saddam Iraq" were discussed at the Administration's first National Security Council meeting -- in February, 2001.  That was about two weeks after the inauguration, several months before September 11, and more than two years before the invasion of Iraq. Cynics think this suggests that Mr. Bush was planning the invasion even before he was elected. 

By now it is clear that the war had exactly the consequence intended: record profits for oil companies and defense contractors.  Blood and money from poor people, going to subsidize the adventurism of the ultra-rich. 

But, then, these unfortunate incidents are inevitable when you have a lot of cold-hearted people with big bank accounts.  The difference between nervous people with big guns, and cold-hearted people with big bank accounts, is this:  the people with the guns kill people one at a time; the people with the money kill by the thousands.