Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

Rachel Maddow and Pig Fat

In addition to her racial smear of Second Circuit nominee Steven Menashi (which I addressed here and here), MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow also attacked Menashi for recounting a mistaken story about General John Pershing’s supposed use of “bullets dipped in pig fat” to execute Muslim terrorists in the Philippines early in the last century. During the course of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump used this story to argue (in Maddow’s words) that “that’s how we got rid of Muslim terrorists in the past and now we’re too wussy to do that.”

Maddow complains that Menashi “told that same fake story in the course of his academic career,” and she contends that he “made that same argument that Trump made on the stump.” Her complaint is very misleading, and her contention is wrong:

1. The story from Menashi that Maddow objects to opens a book review that he published in April 2002. Just months earlier, as this Los Angeles Times article reports, Democratic senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the same story:

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham (D-Fla.) cited as an example a dinner he attended last week with people who work on intelligence issues and have connections to the intelligence community. The dinner conversation ranged in part on how U.S. military commander “Black Jack” Pershing used Islam’s prohibition on pork to help crush an insurgency on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao after the Spanish-American War at the turn of the last century.

In one instance, Graham explained in an interview, U.S. soldiers captured 12 Muslims. They killed six of them with “bullets dipped into the fat of pigs.”

After that, Graham said, the U.S. soldiers wrapped the Muslim rebels in funeral shrouds made of pigskin and “buried them face down so they could not see Mecca. Then they poured the entrails of the pigs over them. The other six were forced to watch. And that was the end of the insurrection on Mindanao,” Graham noted.

Evidently this false story was circulating widely in intelligence circles at the time.

Menashi wrote this review shortly after he finished college and before he began law school—not during his time as a law professor and thus not at a time when most people would understand him to be “in the course of his academic career.”

2. Nowhere in his book review does Menashi argue in favor of such anti-terrorism tactics. On the contrary, he faults the author whose book he is reviewing for promoting a view of American power that “would divorce itself from a special concern for human rights” and for amorally “sanction[ing] brutal tactics for maintaining order.” Menashi argues that “we need good values” (his emphasis) and that while we should not ignore the reality of power politics, “we also should not be so brazen as to lose sight of our moral aims.”

In short, unless you’re going to hold a junior researcher to a higher standard than the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, it’s difficult to see how Menashi’s innocent error can fairly be counted against his nomination.

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