Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Supreme Insult of a Shoe

"Muntadar has not joined any party or movement," Maithan said. "Nobody paid him to do this. His love for Iraq made him do this."

Brother of Muntadar al-Zaidi Iraqi journalist who threw two shoes at President Bush

I understand love of country. This man did choose to hurl his shoes in protest instead of going underground or arming himself with a gun as some have done elsewhere. The action speaks perhaps of the recognition of that divide between what is acceptable dissent and what is not in this New Iraq; it speaks of one man's struggle and remedy for powerlessness; it speaks of the rational/irrational struggles in the soul as one come to grips with the yearning for a country with a future. Not Saddam Hussein's old country, I suspect, but a homeland where people have a chance to live beyond 57, grow wrinkles and see grandchildren play in the park. What would we have done were we in the same predicament?

Despite the glee that some are feeling worldwide in response to this “shoedenfreude” as the NYT Baghdad Bureau calls it, the Iraqis themselves do not share a single opinion about the incident. The Baghdad Bureau blog tells the story of a man who apologized to one of our military officers for the shoe incident, insisting “that it not reflect poorly on all Iraqis. A young student puts the purpose of the shoe-throwing incident as an unforgettable reminder to Bush about “his wars and casualties in Iraq, but in an Iraqi way.” And one female journalist said: “That was totally inappropriate and unethical to insult a guest of the Prime Minister, this guy does not represent the Iraqi people.”

Iraqi journalist for the NYT, Atheer Kakan on President Bush saying, “That’s what people do in a free society, draw attention to themselves,” has this to say: “Well, I don’t know how true is this but I know one thing: no one during Saddam’s era would have dared to think about doing that. He would have been executed, and maybe also his family, and the journalists who witnessed the incident.”

More reactions here across Iraq.

Protests calling for the release of the offending journalist, Muntadhar al-Zaidi, continued for a second day across the Arab world, as reported by CNN. Allegations of his mistreatment under police custody have also surfaced in the media. The International Herald Tribune further reports that after the judge completes his investigation the court may send al-Zaidi for trial (under a clause in the Iraqi penal code that makes it an offense to attempt to murder Iraqi or foreign presidents). The sentence for such a crime could be up to 15 years in prison.

As a serious news junkie I can tell you that this shoe attack is a non-winning narrative for us. A shoe-protest has now been organized for the US Embassy in London. Of course, art now imitates life online – so sock and awe is now live, allowing readers to throw a virtual shoe. There is also a Facebook group called, "Release Montather Al-Zaidi and Give Him New Shoes." Can you imagine the cottage industry that would sprout if they put this guy away for 12 years?

Besides putting this guy away is not going to erased from our collective memory the insults that he hurled on live TV to a sitting United States president. In fact, if Iraq does put this guy in jail for an unreasonable time, it would reinforced in the minds of many all the bad things they they already presumed or believed about their own government and the United States. Meanwhile, Iraq’s “sole of the nation” will be way on his way to becoming a folk hero in all of Iraq and in the Arab world; his actions most probably filed under courage in the Iraqi historical account.

The western world does not really have an exact equivalent of shoe-throwing as a symbol of supreme insult. We’ve never used shoes in this manner in our culture and yet, what could be more insulting than to throw at the target, shoes that are not only smelly, and dirty but footwear that kissed both our soles and the earth? What comes closest in the west is throwing a pie at someone; which comes across as somewhat benign by comparison - given that you can lick the cream but can’t do that with a shoe. As for the shoe as weapon in an attempted murder – that would be a stretch unless those shoes are proven to be the same as Colonel Klebb’s poison tipped shoe in From Russia with Love; in which case, throwing them defeats the purpose of its design. For more on footwear-based weaponry, click here.

The two pranksters in Belgium who attacked Microsoft boss Bill Gates with custard pies were fined 75 euros (US$88) - the minimum sentence for their messy crime. Probably the same sentence for the attack of Dutch Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm, who received two custard pies in the face a week later as he launched trading in the euro.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien also got a pie in the face from a resident of Nova Scotia; the pie-thrower, a member of the “Pie Brigade” was arrested and questioned by the police. It is not known what type of punishment he was subjected to.

Another Canadian Christopher Peter Geoghegan, 24, hit Alberta Premier Ralph Klein with a cream pie at the Calgary Stampede breakfast and the prosecutor asked for a 30-day jail sentence. The prosecutor in this case said "The accused felt somehow he was licensed to act by the superiority of his (political) views. Citizens in a democracy expect their leaders to address them and be approachable ... (pie attacks) have a chilling or freezing effect in respect to our politicians."

Back in this country, the "Cherry Pie Three" of the Biotic Baking Brigade were convicted of battery for creaming then San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown with cherry, pumpkin and tofu pies and were sentenced to six months in county jail. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ernest Goldsmith said he levied the maximum possible sentence for a misdemeanor battery charge after the pie-tossers declined probation. In sentencing the defendants, Goldsmith said they must "learn to use other methods to get their message across to the government."

On the shoe incident, the WH only has this to say: "The president believes that Iraq is a sovereign country, a democratic country, and they will have a process that they follow on this," White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters. "The president harbors no hard feelings about the incident."

The president has already demonstrated his sense of humor by quipping, “All I can report is it is a size 10.” He could do the extra mile by calling publicly on the Iraqi Government to release al-Zaidi to his family in the same condition as he was taken. As Tawfeeq Qais, a 31-year-old Iraqi barber, said: “Muntader expressed his opinion about the freedom and democracy brought to Iraq by Bush. Bush has to take responsibility for it, and this action should be considered as a kind of democracy.”

Well, there is that. Democracy can be messy. The World Press Freedom Committee states that democracy and economic prosperity are not possible without public accountability of its leaders and transparency in its transactions, and vigorous public discussion of issues and choices. They are not talking about shoes here but insult laws, where this incident might fall, which are apparently incompatible with Article 19 of the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and of the American Convention on Human Rights.

That's us.

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