Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Steven Vincent

It's so sad that it was Steven Vincent's murder that led me to the excellent blog to which he contributed. He was one of those people that only America seems to create: brave, optimistic, energetic and viscerally intolerant of cruelty and deceit. And he wrote well.

Steven Vincent

He highlighted the corruption of the new Iraqi Shia elite. It's probably not much worse than in other low-trust Southern Med states. But he refused easy rationalization - American lives and gold have created the new Iraq, and he expected Iraqis to honor that.

His friendly descriptions of the Brit attitude to the locals sounds spot-on. Brits quietly assume that non-Anglos are unavoidable lazy & corrupt. By contrast, Americans expect that anyone from anywhere on the planet can become, say, a successful Chevrolet dealer in Reston, and so they have high expectations.

Here are four gems (my ellipsis), first one on classic low-trust behavior.

...I fell into conversation with a young British officer who was assisting with Basra's new emergency "115" line--the equivalent to our "911." Now, the British being British, they humanely designed the system to allow a person to contact help even if his mobile lacks a SIM card--in effect, making 115 calls free to the public. (Land lines are few and unreliable, so Basrans live by their cells, requiring them to purchase expensive "scratch" cards to replenish their minutes.) Iraqis being Iraqi, however, the latest fad in town is to remove your SIM card and make prank calls to 115--worse, the system lacks a "release" mechanism that permits the switchboard from cutting off hoaxes, meaning fun-loving Basrans frequently tie up the lines all night. "Only five percent of 115 calls are real emergencies," the officer said, as we both shook our heads.

Then on the brave women who we hope will shape the future of Iraq.

Collecting himself, "But should we really get involved in choosing one political group over another?" the Captain countered. "I mean, I've always believed that we shouldn't project American values onto other cultures--that we should let them be. Who is to say we are right and they are wrong?"

But Layla (Steven's Iraqi translator) would have none of it. "No, believe me!" she exclaimed, sitting forward on her stool. "These religious parties are wrong! Look at them, their corruption, their incompetence, their stupidity! Look at the way they treat women! How can you say you cannot judge them? Why shouldn't your apply your own cultural values?"

On American optimism and practicality.

I'd wanted to introduce Layla to the Gary Cooper side of America, and I felt I'd succeeded. Instead of the evasive, over-subtle, windy Iraqi, fond of theory and abstraction, here was a to-the-point Yank, rolling up his sleeves with a can-do spirit of fair play and doing good. "I want to have a positive effect on this country's future," the Captain averred. "For example, whenever I learn of a contracting firm run by women, I put it at the top of my list for businesses I want to consider for future projects." I felt proud of my countryman; you couldn't ask for a more sincere guy.

On the uniquely Brit combination of kindly competence and low expectations.

To the despair of many secular-minded residents, the British are doing a cracker-jack job of teaching Iraqi police cadets close-order drills, proper arrest techniques and pistol marksmanship, without, however, including basic training in democratic principles and a sense of public duty. As a result, our Anglo allies may be handing the religious parties spiffy new myrmidons to augment their already well-armed militias. Worse, the knowledge that a cop's sympathies may lie more with the Badr Organization than the Basran citizenry erodes general trust in the police. "If someone, say, stole my car, I wouldn't go to the police to get it back," an Iraqi journalist told me. "I'd negotiate directly with the thieves."

Vincent's killers have critically wounded Layla. I pray she survives and that America continues to produce people like Steven Vincent.