The Bookseller of Kabul / The Bin Ladens

The First Book of the Week is “The Bookseller of Kabul” by Asne Seierstad, translated by Ingrid Christophersen, originally published in 2002.

“To him, power is more important than peace. He’s mad enough to jeopardize the lives of thousands just so he can be in charge. I can’t imagine why the Americans want to cooperate with a man like that.”

-Said of the Afghan warlord Padsha Khan, who took over Central Asia after the Taliban left in 2002.

The Americans hired Khan to look for members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. The warlord used the American-provided money, weapons (such as B-52’s and F-16 fighter planes), communications devices (such as a satellite phone) and intelligence devices (all of which were also provided to the warlord’s enemies) to kill his enemies in a local conflict in the provinces– instead of seeking America’s enemies.

This paperback tersely yet effectively described the culture of strict Muslim households as seen through the lifestyle (as dictated by its eventual patriarch, Sultan, the oldest son– the favorite child) of a few generations and branches of the Khan family tree. Crazy about books, in the early 1970’s, Sultan opened his first bookshop in Kabul. With his obsessively hard work, his business grew to three shops in a few decades.

As is well known, in September 1996, Afghanistan became a theocracy under the Taliban. Sultan’s behavior and attitudes was typical for a man of his generation and entrepreneurial bent. He traveled to Tehran, Tashkent and Moscow to acquire all kinds of books to sell. He did jail time for offering subversive ones. In Afghanistan, there was actually book-burning in November 1999.

Sultan decreed that his sons quit high school to manage his stores, and his wife performed the administrative work. During the most politically oppressive times, he, his wife and four children lived in Pakistan. After the Taliban were driven out of his native land of Afghanistan in 2002, his family returned. War was the order of the day for his son’s entire seventeen-year lifetime, as the country then devolved into civil war among warlords.

Against the wishes of his extended family and his first wife, Sultan married a sixteen-year old girl. The girl’s family needed the customary gifts bestowed on them, including supplies, food and animals.

Sultan risked his life, paying people-smugglers in order to go to Pakistan primarily to visit business contacts (and his family), as, after 9/11, the country closed its border with Afghanistan. Lahore in Pakistan had no regard for intellectual property laws, so Sultan could get two to three thousand percent profit margins on stolen texts of books he had printed there. The kind of lawlessness that existed on the Afghan side of the Khyber pass included a free-for-all on hashish and weaponry.

Read the book to learn a wealth of additional characteristics about Sultan’s culture, such as wedding rituals, pilgrimages, and about the draconian segregation of the sexes and enforced inferiority of the females.

The Second Book of the Week is “The Bin Ladens, An Arabian Family in the American Century” by Steve Coll, published in 2008.

This large volume described the culture of what Americans would consider to be a huge family of Middle Easterners with the last name Bin Laden, whose households ranged from the strictly Muslim to the very Westernized, over a few generations and branches of its family tree.

Born around the dawn of the twentieth century, one of the family’s major patriarchs was the entrepreneurial Mohamed, a construction contractor who played well with others, and joined the Hadhrami community in Yemen. He kissed up to the Saudi Arabian government in order to build his business.

In the mid-1930’s, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud began to reap riches from oil. This led to various developments in terms of the evolution of the country’s infrastructure and acquisition of Western aid.

During WWII, Great Britain and the United States lavished copious monetary assistance on Saudi Arabia to keep it away from Communist temptations. The Saudis opted to pave roads instead of building railway lines, as automobiles would allow them to prosper by selling oil. Aramco, the jointly owned American and Saudi oil company, did business with Mohamed, too.

Strictly Muslim, Mohamed– a polygamist, was a typical man for his time and place. Of his 54 children, his oldest son, Salem, was born in the mid-1940’s. As such, Salem grew up to become chair of several multi-national corporations his father eventually grew, that built mosques, dams and reservoirs, and renovated the buildings and grounds of pilgrimage regions and military installations.

At the dawn of the 1950’s, the Bin Ladens’ companies were awarded business by the Saudi government partly because American contractors couldn’t deal with the Saudis, as the Saudis were too corrupt. Even so, the Saudi government’s officials, who were big spenders living high on the hog, went deep into debt, and turned out to be bad payers.

About a decade later, Mohamed’s businesses, which were developing structurally complicated kinds of shell companies– acquired a reputation for inexperienced laborers, doing shoddy work and missing deadlines.

President John F. Kennedy initially supported Egypt’s leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1962, but the latter sent guerrilla soldiers to Yemen to agitate for a new government there, and exchanged hostile words with Saudi Arabia’s government. In 1963, the United States changed its mind, probably for various secret geopolitical reasons.

In order to protect Saudi Arabia’s southern frontier from Nasser’s imperialist aspirations, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cooperated with Great Britain to provide the Saudis with missiles and military infrastructure there. Mohamed’s contribution was to build roads.

Osama was one of Mohamed’s biological sons, born in January 1958, when his mother was about fifteen years old. His parents divorced in his early childhood. His mother remarried. Mohamed died when he was nine years old. During (what would be equivalent to) junior high school, he joined an after-school Islamic study group. He was later recruited into the Muslim Brotherhood; an anti-Nasser, Koran-purist group approved of by Saudi Arabia’s king in the early 1970’s.

That was a time of foreign-policy contradictions for the Saudis and the West. In 1973, the former imposed an oil embargo meant to harm the Americans (for helping the Israelis), Egyptians and Syrians. At the same time, the Saudis accepted financial aid from the Americans, as the former supplied oil to the latter’s troops in Vietnam. The Saudis also purchased vast quantities of U.S. Treasury Bonds.

Salem became the leader of a few of the most Westernized branches of the family (his younger siblings), encouraging the education of females. He purchased properties in the United States, and began to collect private jets. His relatives had identity crises, caught between two cultures.

At seventeen years old, Osama married a fourteen-year old. She bore him a son, and pursuant to the Koran, he obeyed a laundry list of prohibitions: didn’t covet his neighbor’s wife, and banned photography, music, gambling and alcohol from his life. He did, however, teach his children hunting and shooting, and seemed to have no problem with violating certain religious laws. He quit college and entered the family business.

In early 1985, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd and Salem met with American president Ronald Reagan. The king secretly funneled money to a Cayman Islands account to fund the Contras (of the infamous Iran-Contra affair).

Read the book to learn how numerous other historical events shaped the activities of Salem and Osama and vice versa through the second half of the twentieth century into the new millennium.

ENDNOTE: Even with all the information the author was able to glean– the story was like Swiss cheese. The United States has suffered the usual in terms of intelligence-gathering in recent decades: incompetence, hubris and inter-agency rivalry, not to mention political and economic inter-dependence between the Arabs and the United States. Other wrenches in the works include the complex web of Bin Laden business dealings and entities, many of which are offshore. Enough said.

BONUS POST

What do the following individuals have in common?

Joe Palazzolo
Jimmy Vielkind
Rebecca Davis O’Brien
Lisa Schwartz
Corinne Ramey
Eric Lutz
Morgan Chalfant
Elliot Hannon
Daniel Marans
Phoebe McRae
Matt Troutman
Zak Failla
Mary Altaffer
Robert Pelaez
Herb Scribner
Jake Lauhut
David Robinson
Michael Hill
Marina Villeneuve
Jennifer Peltz
Rachel Stracqualursi
Rachel Cohrs
Alex Yablon
Eric Lach
David Sirota
Julia Rock
Nicole Hong
William K. Rashbaum
Jesse McKinley
Luis Ferré-Sadurní
Aaron Katersky
Virginia Chamlee
MJ Lee
Mark Morales
Lauren del Valle
Chas Danner
Matt Stieb
Caroline Linton
Bill Mahoney
Tom Tapp
Rich McKay
Sydney Pereira
Matthew S. Schwartz
Keshia Clukey
Shelly Banjo
Michael Hernandez
Peter Wade
Bernadette Hogan
Carl Campanile
Bruce Golding
Tracey Alvino
Jennifer Lewke
Will Feuer
James Agresti
Nick Reisman
Andrew Stein
Fred Siegel
Victor Garcia
Chris Bragg
Amanda Fries
Ann McCloy
Tom Dinki
Zack Budryk
Stephanie Ruhle
Joaquin Sapien
Joe Sexton
Mollie Simon
Benjamin Hardy
Robert Harding
Tobias Hoonhout
Marisa Schultz
Denis Slattery
Kaylee McGhee White
Jim Mustian
Jennifer Peltz
Bernard Condon
Julia Ritchey
Allie Griffin
Orion Rummler
Amanda Chin

Here’s a hint– a parody in connection with Andrew Cuomo, current governor of New York State:

KING OF THE ROGUES
sung to the tune of “King of the Road” with apologies to the estate of Roger Miller.

Smearers of Cuomo are bent
on putting in their two cents.
Accusations, gossip, rumors;
many loud, noisy doomers.
Ah, but two minutes of rewriting text
drowns out, all Cuomo says next.
His end is on the receiving end, King of the Rogues.

Two scandals knock him out, of any future political bout.
He can’t fight City Hall.
Oh, the irony of it all.
No matter what he’s done before,
he’ll be spat on forevermore.

His end is on the receiving end, King of the Rogues.

He learned from his daddy in every campaign,
all of his contacts, and all of his games.
For years and years in every town.
Too bad too much history brings the son down.

And now, smearers of Cuomo are bent
on putting in their two cents.
Accusations, gossip, rumors;
many loud, noisy doomers.
Ah, but two minutes of rewriting text
drowns out, all Cuomo says next.
His end is on the receiving end, King of the Rogues.

Smearers of Cuomo are bent
on putting in their two cents.
Accusations, gossip, rumors;
many loud, noisy doomers.
Ah, but two minutes of rewriting text
drowns out, all Cuomo says next.
His end is on the receiving end, King of the Rogues.

City of Gold

The Book of the Week is “City of Gold, Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism” by Jim Krane, published in 2009.
Location and entrepreneurial opportunists played a big role in making the city of Dubai the westernized hub of modernity it is today. It is located across the Persian Gulf from Iran.
Beginning in 1894, Dubai’s ruling family paved the way for it to become a trading hub, providing financial incentives to Arab, Persian, Indian and Baluchi merchants to use Dubai’s port rather than Iran’s ports. However, a side effect of prosperous trade invited smuggling of black-market goods including firearms, gold, slaves, diamonds and drugs.
The mid-twentieth century finally saw the game- changing discovery of oil in Dubai. In September 1958, the city got a new ruling sheikh who began to introduce better living to his people through infrastructure and utilities. In December 1971, Dubai and other territories in the region shed their British-protectorate status. At the last minute, Iran made a land-grab, but the remaining areas of the seven sheikhdoms became the United Arab Emirates.

Abu Dhabi held 88% of the land and 90% of the oil. So, through the 1970’s, Dubai’s ruling family further reduced Dubai’s financial dependence on oil by branching out into trade, construction and services– importing cheap labor to do it. The city built an aluminum smelter, a seaport and a dry dock– which in the 1980’s, repaired vessels from Iran that were damaged in its war with Iraq. The gentrification trend inevitably involved a little eminent-domain abuse, Arab-style, but Dubai citizens and capitalist expatriates needed luxurious places to live in the desert.

From the late 1990’s into the 2000’s, with the introduction of the Internet, Dubai lured the world’s biggest technology and media companies with generous financial incentives, building corporate villages for them. In 2000, Dubai allowed foreigners to buy real estate. The following year, the city had a stock market.

After 9/11, Arab investors transferred their money from the United States to Dubai. In February 2006, New York State Senator Charles Schumer and the media whipped up a frenzy of anti-Arab hysteria by telling the public that Dubai owned some of America’s most important Eastern-Seaboard ports. Hillary Clinton and hate-spewing pundits piled on. “Yet Dubai and the UAE remained among America’s closest Arab counter-terror Allies, even though the United States government has problems with Dubai’s freewheeling trade with Iran.”

Fast forward to 2007. Dubai’s small population of about a million citizens (mostly royal family members) allowed the government to adopt a socialist policy of generous entitlements, including an average annual $55,000 in stimulus money, and low-cost or no-cost: cooling of their lavish homes, car-fuel, food, education, healthcare, and water.

One last factoid: Dubai keeps its population safe because “The government is on the lookout for any form of radical expression, whether it’s Saudi Wahhabism, Salafism, or radical Shiite theology from Iraq and Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood cannot operate openly.”

Read the book to learn about: how the British stifled Dubai’s growth, and many more details on the city’s political, economic and cultural history, beginning with ancient times.

Man of Tomorrow

The Book of the Week is “Man of Tomorrow, The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown” by Jim Newton, published in 2020.

Born in April 1938 in San Francisco, Brown had two older sisters and one younger. His father, Pat, was Democrat governor of California in the early 1960’s. Jerry became a devout Jesuit while in college. In 1961, he began law school at Yale, where his tuition was paid via a foundation program that benefited children of California officeholders, run by philanthropist Louis Lurie.

In the mid-1960’s, California governor Ronald Reagan signed bills for laws for three different, moderately liberal causes. The first bill raised taxes. In July 1967, after a scary incident involving the Black Panthers, Reagan ratified the Mulford Act, which outlawed the carrying of a loaded firearm in public. Thirdly, the same year, Reagan (grudgingly) legalized abortion for pregnant Californians whose lives were endangered or who were victims of rape.

Helped by name recognition via his father, after getting elected as California governor in 1974, Brown, fatalist though he was, proved to be an environmentally friendly politician. In autumn 1976, he signed 21 bills intended to provide pollution protection for his state’s coastal areas. Yet, he cut spending and shrunk government– defying his party’s reputation.

During his religious phase as a student and thereafter, Brown spent long hours in philosophical contemplation in order to hash out his political views. He effected prison-sentencing reform that changed “doing time” from rehabilitation to punishment.

However, California’s whole criminal justice system is arbitrary– changing with the tenor of the times, and by imposing sentencing guidelines, as the new law did, at least judges would presumably have been less biased (differ less widely) in meting out punishment. And in his second time around as governor (he was elected again in 2010, and was reelected), he issued a lot of pardons and commutations because he still had faith in humanity.

One issue that affected others was an initiative in which the California government auctioned off quantities of the state’s polluters’ emissions, providing the state with revenues it could use for pet projects of the governor. In the 2010’s, Brown was planning a high-speed railway, wanted to protect poor communities from environmental damage, and (obviously) needed to do maintenance for forest-fighting prevention.

In his four terms, Brown mulled over whether to sign or veto more than twenty thousand potential laws. In 2018 alone, he deemed 201 out of 1,016 of them, unworthy of his support.

Read the book to learn of California history, the history of its popular culture, the forces behind the rise of Brown’s popularity there, and the issues that shaped his actions.

Madam Secretary – BONUS POST

“… the United States lost interest in the region, leaving behind thousands of militant people with few jobs but many guns.”
No, not North America.

1990’s Afghanistan, according to Madeleine Albright. And as is well known, plenty of other decades and places.

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Madam Secretary, A Memoir” by Madeleine Albright with Bill Woodward, published in 2003.

Albright was born in May 1937. She and her parents fled their native Czechoslovakia for England the following year. They moved back after the war. In early 1948, Communists took over Czechoslovakia, while she was sent to boarding school in Switzerland. Meanwhile, her father, a high-level diplomat, moved to the Czech embassy in South Asia to help resolve the dispute over Kashmir. Her mother, brother and sister made their way to the United States. They were eventually granted political asylum.

Albright married a journalist from an “economic royalist” family with extensive real estate and corporate holdings. “We continued to go to Georgia… Colorado… Virginia, where we added land wherever we could…” She built a high-powered career, beginning as a volunteer for political causes that required frequent global travel in the late 1980’s. “But my American passport made all the difference. I was able to meet with dissidents, then board a plane and leave. I didn’t have to make the choices they [Czech citizens, when they were a Soviet satellite] had to make each day of their lives.”

Albright served as UN ambassador in president Bill Clinton’s first term. She switched to secretary of state in the second term. In spring 1997, there remained numerous nations suffering continuous and continual political crises that arguably necessitated military intervention– despite the end of the Cold War. Albright represented the United States government in talks that resulted in an increase in the number of NATO members from sixteen to nineteen through adding Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary because they were approaching democracy sooner than other political territories.

Albright claimed that economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council on Libya actually motivated Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi to turn in the two suspects (traced to Libya) for trial, in the terrorist bomb-attack on Pan Am flight 103. However, around the same time, sanctions in the form of a trade embargo, failed to change any of the cronyism and corruption practiced by Fidel Castro of Cuba. Apparently, he wasn’t in a power struggle, and wasn’t afraid that his worldwide reputation would be tarnished by treating his country’s citizens worse than usual.

As for North Korea, in June 2000, president Clinton visited leader Kim Jong il in the capital Pyongyang for a summit meeting that resulted in reunions of South and North Korean families who had been separated for more than fifty years. “North and South Korean athletes marched as one during opening ceremonies of the 2000 Olympic Games…” Ah, the good old days.

Anyway, read the book to learn much more about Albright’s trials, tribulations, and triumphs in trying to achieve world peace. Here is a parody that briefly describes a high-level, foreign-service position.

JOB OF A LIFETIME

sung / spoken to the tune of “Once in a Lifetime” [the long version] with apologies to Talking Heads (Brian Eno, Christopher Frantz, David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth.)

And you may find yourself
living in a luxury hotel.
And you may busy yourself
flying all over the world.

And you may kid yourself
behind the scenes of a large cease-fire agreement.
And you may seat yourself
in a situation room
with a complicated plot.
And you may declare to yourself, well,
There’ll be no nuclear war here!

Trying to do your best
while the media cut you down.
Attending meetings, writing reports
while shenanigans abound.

Picking your battles again.
Tribal fighting never gone.
Job of a lifetime, though shenanigans abound.

And you may mutter to yourself
How do I word this?
And you may ask yourself
What happened to that peace-keeping mission?

And you may lament to yourself
This is not in my country’s best interest!
And you may think to yourself
Good luck with that civilian administration.

Trying to do your best
while the media cut you down.
Attending meetings, writing reports
while shenanigans abound.

Picking your battles again.
Tribal fighting never gone.
Job of a lifetime, though shenanigans abound.

We need more global cooperation.
We need more global cooperation.
We need more global cooperation.
We need more global cooperation.
We need more global cooperation.
We need more global cooperation.
We need more global cooperation.
We need more global cooperation.

Conflict Resolving and troubleshooting.
There is conflict all over the earth.
Visit the conflict, minimize the conflict.
Resolve the conflict, all over the earth.
Conflict resolving and troubleshooting.

Trying to do your best
while the media cut you down.
Attending meetings, writing reports
while shenanigans abound.

Picking your battles again.
Break the silence on war, there is conflict on the earth.
While the media cut you down.
Trying to do your best
while the media cut you down.
Trying to do your best
while the media cut you down.

Picking your battles again.
Tribal fighting never gone.
Job of a lifetime, though shenanigans abound.

You may wonder to yourself
Who is that foreign minister?
You may mumble to yourself
What is the world coming to?
And you may sigh to yourself
Who is right? Who is wrong?
And you may growl to yourself
Arrgh! What is going on?

Trying to do your best
while the media cut you down.
Attending meetings, writing reports
while shenanigans abound.

Picking your battles again.
Tribal fighting never gone.
Job of a lifetime, though shenanigans abound.

Trying to do your best
while the media cut you down.
Attending meetings, writing reports
while shenanigans abound.

Picking your battles again.
Tribal fighting never gone.
Job of a lifetime, though shenanigans abound.

Witnessing history all the time.
Witnessing history all the time.
Witnessing history all the time.

Thank goodness that war is over.
This treaty has too many loopholes.
And another disaster.

Promote democratic values worldwide.
Promote democratic values worldwide.
Promote democratic values worldwide.
Promote democratic values worldwide.
Promote democratic values worldwide.
Promote democratic values worldwide.

Trying to do your best.
Witnessing history all the time.
And the refugees come.
And here come the refugees.
Lost in translation.
Trying do your best (Witnessing history all the time.)
We need more global cooperation…

Vigilance

The Book of the Week is “Vigilance, My Life Serving America and Protecting Its Empire City” by Ray Kelly, published in 2015.

Born in Manhattan in September 1941, the author grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Long Island City in Queens county, the youngest of five children. He was a cadet for the New York City police department (NYPD) while attending college, where he majored in business.

In 1964, he was a U.S. Marine and “… getting sent to the Southeast Asian nation [Vietnam] was still seen as a perfectly fine posting… an exotic place where you could go and be an adviser, play at some guerrilla warfare, obtain command and experience, and learn about a different culture…” He went there and actually enjoyed the life-threatening aspects of soldiering.

In the early 1970’s, the author was assigned to the vice squad, whose subdivisions kept pimps, prostitutes, numbers-racketeers, and drug dealers in line. That last category changed their products through the years, from opium, pot and acid, to heroin and pills. In the mid-1980’s, the crime rate soared with the introduction of crack-cocaine.But rather than blame an increase in crime on social ills such as drugs, family breakups and poverty– the mayor of New York City in the early 1990’s, David Dinkins– appointed the author as police commissioner, who changed the NYPD, starting in October 1992.

The author engaged in operations management to determine the number of cops (of a total of about 25,000) required for specific types of calls, to deploy the city’s resources wisely. He thought Dinkins deserved more credit than he got for lowering the crime rate.Beginning in the mid-1990’s, the author earned a law degree, and worked in a few different capacities in white-collar law enforcement on behalf of the federal government. He bragged about helping with big drug busts involving Mexican marijuana, Federal Express, cocaine cartels and Mexican banks in the late 1990’s. He also bragged about foiling a terrorist plot involving a car bomb at Los Angeles airport at the end of 1999. After 9/11, he felt there was a crying need to dispel inter-agency rivalry in United States law enforcement. He favored consolidating agencies to form one, that would be responsible for homeland security.

Incidentally, the personal accounts of senators Tom Daschle and Robert Byrd contained starkly different recollections as to how the Department of Homeland Security was formed. The reason was that: Daschle and his staff were subjected to lots of trauma and massive disruption as victims of an anthrax attack in 2001 so they personally witnessed the problems with American law enforcement and saw the need for one department, whereas Byrd’s office experienced no such ordeal, so Byrd zeroed in on George W. Bush’s political exploitation of the situation.

BUT– not only did the Bush administration chaotically rush into consolidating departments, it also failed to provide job security and benefits for newer employees. In law enforcement especially, that is an invitation for trouble– that means higher turnover than otherwise among employees who have access to weaponry and sensitive data. Enough said.

Anyway, the author became NYPD police commissioner again with mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002. He created counter-terrorism and intelligence departments. His idea of policing involved the “three C’s” of Counter-terrorism, Crime-fighting and Community relations. He took credit for technologically modernizing the NYPD. For, in the single-digit 2000’s, “… We had twenty different databases that didn’t speak to each other and were almost impossible to search. Each division, bureau, and unit had its own hardware and software and its own unique way of maintaining the files.”

Beginning in 2003, the NYPD stationed (anti-terrorism) detectives in major cities around the world, starting with Israel, of course. The author felt that international cooperation was an important element of countering threats from abroad. He wrote that geopolitical pressure between or among allies brought to bear on rogue states, could deter attacks. He boasted that in 2006, his team foiled a plot to blow up the Hudson River tunnels in Manhattan.

In 2013, he launched a social-media operation whose goal was to detect online activity that would result in gang activity on the streets. The author expressed his views on a few other topics; he believed:

  • body-cameras should be used by law enforcement officers, as they protect both officers and the public;
  • there should be diversity in hiring of officers, as their jobs are a community-oriented service, and should be a reflection of the community; and
  • military equipment should be used by local law enforcement only as a last resort.

Read the book to learn additional details of the author’s life and career.

Do It Again

DO IT AGAIN

(regarding the impeachment trial, of course)

sung to the tune of “Do It Again” with apologies to the Beach Boys.

It’s nostalgic when I
confer with old friends,
like the Constitution
and the Trump we knew
when his behavior was bad and mean
and the court was the place to go.

Legal logic and
waves of questions,
the Washington crowd and
beautiful drama,
warmed up lawyers. Let’s
get together and do it again.

With reams of evidence the latest case looks good.
The Dems can’t help but take a parting shot.

Time to move on.

Move.
Move.
Move.
Move.
Move.

Mm hmm.
Mm hmm.
Mm hmm.
Mm hmm.
Mm Hmm.

Well, I keep looking at

all the things we’ve Tweeted and posted
and all the

zingers we’ve missed so let’s get
back together and do it again.

Hellhound On His Trail / Vernon Can Read – BONUS POST

The first Bonus Book of the Week is “Hellhound On His Trail, The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History” by Hampton Sides, published in 2010.

“He’d been jailed eighteen times. His house had been fire-bombed. He’d been stabbed by a deranged black woman, punched in the face by a Nazi, and struck in the head with a rock. He’d marched [facing] tear gas, police dogs, cattle prods, and water cannons… he’d been burned in effigy. And everywhere he went, the FBI was on his tail, watching, listening.”

NOT Trump. Martin Luther King, Jr.

With this scholarly but readable work, the author suspensefully recounted King’s assassination story, trying to be fair and objective, poring over reams of primary-source documents and personally conversing with people who were there, in order to make an accurate assessment of the incident, and its historical context.

Sadly, the current trend in American book-publishing is producing a large percentage of works that appeal to readers seeking confirmation of their narrow-minded beliefs– such as books (usually by hate-spewing pundits) that scream lies, smears and conspiracies; or prolonged rants whose sole purpose is to serve as catharses for their authors; or fantasy panaceas by authors who oversimplify complex issues in one tidy volume.

Authors such as Sides, however, who do their homework in revisiting a major historical event decades later, are more likely to get it right. Authors who describe major public figures who are still active in their careers, are more likely to provide a more biased account because:

  • history is still unfolding on those individuals.
  • when a public figure has been retired or dead for a few decades, there accumulates a sizable body of information (including primary sources– people who talk about them, videos of interviews, etc., and documents that become declassified) that tells the public about them, created by both their friends and enemies. They contain 20/20 hindsight and show how history has treated them.
  • If a public figure is still alive and actively managing their career, they’re also going to be actively managing their image– trying to suppress bad publicity, which might spur the opposition to smear them more.

Anyway, King developed a reputation for pushing for social change through nonviolence. He opposed the funding of a pro-civil-rights youth group called the Invaders, because they wanted to get violent. At the time, he was the best-known activist preaching peaceful protest. In April 1968, he was killed by a white person, so other black civil-rights activists lost their patience with nonviolence.

King was shot by an ultra-powerful hunting rifle. The one and only bullet, which was going 2,670 feet per second, hit his neck from a distance of 205 feet. The ammunition was specially made to do maximum damage to mercifully kill animals. The rifle magnified objects by seven times, so the killer perceived King to be only thirty feet away.

The killer used fake names and addresses wherever he went, because in the 1960’s, people were more trusting, and no photo IDs were required to stay in a hotel room, flophouse or apartment, apply for a Canadian passport (!), or purchase a rifle from a gun store. That last activity for the killer was easy-peasy; in less than five minutes– he had a deadly weapon in his hands, with no background check, no waiting period.

The killer fantasized that the racist, hate-spewing then-presidential candidate George Wallace from Alabama (formerly governor), would completely pardon him. It is easy to see how this mentality bears a resemblance to recent events. However, in the 1960’s, people– angry enough to commit violence and seeking to go out in a blaze of glory– specifically targeted influential leaders.

In recent decades, more and more violence has been perpetrated by individuals angry at the world— who kill innocent strangers. So more and more ordinary Americans who have nothing to do with perpetrating the violence, are at risk of becoming victims of it. Here is a testament to it: https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/last-72-hours

Investigating the King assassination was a thorny conflict for J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI. For, he had a reputation as a racist, so theoretically, it would have been in his best interest not to find King’s killer. But conspiracy theorists would say he had a hand in the murder. And it was the FBI’s job to root out public enemies, so catching the perpetrator(s) would enhance its image. The manhunt ultimately involved more than 3,500 agents (of a total of about 6,000 agents) and cost almost two million dollars.

Hours after the killing, rioters in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Baltimore and New Jersey set fires and looted or vandalized hundreds of stores. There were hundreds of arrests. Eventually, damage was done to 150 American cities, resulting in forty deaths and 21,000 arrests.

Unsurprisingly, the day after, Jesse Jackson– who was a witness to the shooting– hired a public relations firm and granted a live interview to NBC’s “Today” show.

Anyway, read the book to learn a wealth of additional details about the terror– er, uh tenor, of the times, and about how one person can cause so much trouble.

The second Bonus Book of the Week is “Vernon Can Read, A Memoir” by Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. with Annette Gordon-Reed, published in 2001.

Born in 1935 in Georgia, the African-American Jordan was permitted to become a law clerk immediately after graduating law school, even though he failed the Georgia bar exam (which might have been rigged by his political enemies). He later passed the Arkansas bar exam in 1963, so he was allowed to practice law in Georgia. He built a successful political career serving as a civil-rights lawyer and activist.

In the early 1960’s, Jordan engaged in community organizing for the NAACP, and for the Voter Education Project, which funded voter registration drives of CORE, SCLC, SNCC and NAACP in southern states. The Ku Klux Klan was active there, so blacks were actually under the gun all the time. He helped people of his ethnic group to understand how voting helped them directly.

Ironically, in the early 1970’s, all of the people who did fund-raising for the United Negro College Fund were white, because they were the ones with valuable contacts in high places. Jordan was mentored by a friend as to how to acquire money, power and influence. The two attended an event hosted by an experienced elitist. It was there that the author learned about the various factors required for a successful event, and listed them for the reader.

The Nixon administration was responsive to the National Urban League’s appeals for funding under Jordan’s leadership. However, the Reagan administration cut funding for the Labor Education Advancement Program, which put people to work so that they paid income tax, putting revenue into government coffers. By that time, Jordan sat on the boards of directors of about ten organizations.

Later on, Jordan heard about a proposal for a Ford Foundation-funded black studies exchange program among Duke University, University of North Carolina or other southern schools, that would involve the teachings of Malcolm X. However, he knew the potential funders were only paying lip service to black studies because they themselves wouldn’t think of sending their own kids to such a program.

Read the book to learn a lot more about the author’s experiences, including the time he was shot in the back, and what he accomplished in his life and times.

Call Me American

The Book of the Week is “Call Me American, A Memoir” by Abdi Nor Iftin with Max Alexander, published in 2018.

“There were more guns in the city than people. There was more ammunition than food. It became a thing to own a gun to save your life. Most people slept with a loaded AK-47 sitting next to them.”

The above was the author’s description of lawless Somalia (not the future United States) during the 1990’s.

Somalia, formerly two different colonies– of Britain and Italy, became a sovereign territory in 1960. Born around 1985 in Somalia (where birthdays aren’t important), the author had an older brother and later, younger sisters. Years before, his father’s side of the Muslim family, the Rahanweyn clan (farmers and nomads) was forced, due to drought, to give up herding as their livelihood. Fortunately, the father was able to become a professional basketball player. The mother was a traditional female of Islam– expected to bear and raise the children, and do all the chores and housework.

At the dawn of the 1990’s in Somalia, tensions boiled over between two of the five clans who desired to run the government. Warlords took to fighting that involved looting of shops, bullets and rocket fire. Rebels ousted the “president.” Former government employees fled to America, Canada or the United Kingdom.

Common people like the author’s family who were forced to evacuate their Mogadishu homes were caught in the crossfire of the anarchy, and died anonymously and were left in mass graves in droves from the usual causes– bullets or other weaponry, disease and starvation.

The family had no car, so like thousands of others, they walked miles and miles along unpaved roads with cows, donkeys, dogs and chickens, trying not to get arbitrarily shot by sadistic child-soldiers for being in the wrong tribe, or blown up by rockets (supplied to the anti-government Somali rebels by Ethiopia, sworn enemy of Somalia). Occasionally, they got an extremely crowded truck ride from a driver who had no beef against their tribe. Word-of-mouth rumors led them to believe that the city of Baidoa was a less dangerous place to be than Mogadishu. But that was a relative assessment.

In October 1993, sixteen American soldiers were killed in a Black Hawk helicopter attack at the hands of Soviet weaponry supplied to Somali soldiers. In March 1994, the Americans left Somalia. Ethiopia and Kenya supplied qat to Somali soldiers.

Beginning in the late 1990’s, the United States government paid the warlords (as though they were bounty hunters) to catch radical and foreign Islamists. In the single-digit 2000’s, the warlords assassinated the chairman of one of the five merged Islamic Courts that resolved local legal disputes in Somalia. The merging set the stage for a radical Islamic takeover, but ordinary Somalis were angry at the Western-backed warlords.

As a way to escape the trauma and wreckage around him, in the late 1990’s, the author got caught up in the American pop-cultural scene at local storefronts that: sold boom boxes and cassette tapes of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, reggae and hip-hop music; and screened American movies such as Terminator. He passionately learned English and hip-hop dancing from them.

When the author’s family’s circumstances improved, his horrified parents administered the usual beatings when he put up posters of American cultural icons on his bedroom wall, including one of Madonna in a bikini. His mother thought of the United States as a Christian (evil) country.

However, the author was sufficiently street-smart to complete his seven-year education of memorizing the Koran in Arabic, all 114 chapters, 6,266 verses of it, even though the headmaster of his madrassa was a corporal-punishment tyrant.

Read the book to learn further details of the major ironies, among others, that graced the author’s incredible story: 1) the combination of his (sinful) passions and (highly praised) education that provided him with survival skills in a country where life was cheap and any minute could be one’s last; and 2) “Pictures and names associated with America were crimes, not counting the pictures and names on the American dollar bills that they had in their pockets.”