Three individuals–two foreigners, accompanied by a local guide–venture into a hotbed of insurgency in a dangerous mission to spread democracy to an oppressed people. They are waylaid on a lonely road by police sympathetic to the insurgents, and then murdered. Their deaths are intended as a warning to others who might seek to challenge the killers’ reactionary ideology of tribal supremacy and religious hatred.
This, in brief, is what happened in Iraq last March to American activists Fern Holland and Robert Zangas, along with their translator Salwa Ali. Angered by the Western feminism the three were teaching to Iraqi women, paramilitary gunmen disguised as policeman stopped their vehicle at a fake checkpoint south of Baghdad and riddled it with bullets. Holland and Zangas were the first American civilians working with the CPA to die in Iraq.
Forty years before these deaths, three other civil-rights workers met similar fates in Mississippi–as the January 6 arrest of a 79-year-old preacher, Edgar Ray Killen, reminds us. Two of the victims, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were whites from “foreign” New York; the third, James Chaney, was a black man from Meridian, Miss. On June 21, 1964, a policeman stopped the three for “speeding,” holding them in custody long enough for Killen to organize two carloads of Klan members. The gunmen waited for the release of the civil-right workers, then, after a car chase, eventually caught and executed them, burying their bodies under a levy. Seven men were convicted for the murders. Killen escaped judgment when a jury deadlocked eleven to one on his conviction. (The killings formed the basis for the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.)
I mention these two incidents in order to highlight what too many people excuse or even champion: the nature of the so-called Iraqi “insurgents.” To many people in the West–especially the Michael Moore crowd–the Sunni Triangle gunmen are “guerrillas” engaged in a legitimate “resistance” against a neo-colonialist occupation. This might be true if Iraq were a mid-20th-century-style struggle for national liberation, à la Vietnam or Algeria. But it is not: The war in Iraq is more akin to the struggle for civil rights played out in America in the generations after the Civil War. And in this struggle, the insurgents play the identical role as the racists, bigots, and white supremacists who resorted to violence and murder rather than see their fellow Americans achieve equality.
When the paramilitary death squads (“insurgents” is too clean a word) kidnap and behead Iraqis who work for the reconstruction of their nation–is that not similar to an old-fashioned lynching? The message in both the south and the Sunni Triangle is certainly the same: If you challenge our power, this will be your fate. When gunmen stalk the Iraqi countryside, murdering civilians in the name of “defending their homeland,” can we not see a modern-day Ku Klux Klan? They, too, were masked; they, too, mounted an “insurgency”; they, too, sought to reinstate a reactionary regime based on ethnic and religious supremacy. When a car bomb explodes, killing innocent Iraqis–do the victims not join hands across the years with the four teenage girls killed in the Birmingham church bombings? When Iraqi terrorists gun down election workers in the streets of Baghdad, can we not see, reprised before our eyes, the assassinations of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, in addition to Medgar Evers and others who gave their lives in the name of democracy?
There is hardly an American today who would not shout in loud protest if such racist abominations once again took place in our country. And yet, many of us watch in silence as the exact same atrocities occur in Iraq. Especially perplexing is the silence of the Left–the people who, a generation ago, stood on the forefront of the civil-rights movement. How can they tarnish their proud legacy of fighting for democracy and equality by refusing to take sides in the same struggle 10,000 miles away? Why do they persist in claiming the fight against reactionary extremists is “unjust” and “immoral?” None of these people would for a moment praise the Ku Klux Klan–why do they legitimize the so-called “insurgents”?
Over 40 years ago, men organized by the Christian preacher Edgar Ray Killen tracked down and murdered men whose sole crime was to attempt to expand voting rights throughout the south. Two decades later, similar killers, perhaps organized by a Muslim cleric, assassinated two Americans and one Iraqi in a similar fashion. Different times, different conflicts, but the principles for which these people died–democracy, equality, and freedom–remain the same. In the 1960s, the deaths of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney created an uproar that helped unite the country and assisted the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. How many more innocents must Islamofascists kill in Iraq before that same outrage, that same commitment to the spread of freedom, becomes manifest? What will it take for the people of the world, particularly on the American left, to understand that this war is not about oil, U.S. imperialism, or corporate greed–but the very bedrock of democracy, civil rights?
–Steven Vincent is a freelance investigative journalist and art critic living in New York City. He is blogging about Iraq at www.redzoneblog.com.