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April 09, 2004

The anatomy of hypocrisy

On September 15, 1963, a terrorist bomb tore through the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four 14-year-old girls in the congregation were killed, and a horrified nation recoiled. Birmingham was one of many Southern cities beset by violent opposition to the civil rights movement, and the Klansmen who set the bomb were, after a very long time, indicted, convicted and imprisoned.

John Rice, African-American minister of Birmingham's nearby Westminster Presbyterian Church and active in the civil rights movement, was at his pulpit when the bomb went off down the street. His daughter, nine years old at the time, was sitting in a pew. Later in life she told of hearing the explosion, the rattling in the church windows, the shocked look on the parishioners' faces. It was a turning point in the history of the civil rights movement, and the nation was forever changed.

On April 7, 2004, US bombs tore through a mosque in Fallujah, Iraq. At least 40 people attending prayers were killed. US officials claimed the mosque was being used as a sanctuary for insurgents. The bombing galvanized Iraqi resistance to the US, and generated a firestorm of criticism from people around the world.

In Birmingham, the "insurgents" were called "outside agitators," people from the north come down to Alabama to rile the allegedly placid locals — at least in the view of the Klansmen who did the bombing. In Fallujah, the riling is supposed to have been done by Moqtada Sadr, a militant cleric, stirring an otherwise placid, contented populace to rebellion against their benevolent occupiers.

One can oversimplify these matters. Iraq is not, as a slogan from a year ago suggested, Vietnam. Neither is Fallujah Birmingham. Plenty of Iraqis are horrified at the extreme ideologies supported by Sadr, which it would be farfetched to honor by comparison to the ideologies of Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. The situations are very different.

But if one must resist simplifications, one must also guard against rationalization. It matters little what details you cite: blowing up a church with praying children in it is the same monstrous act whether in Birmingham or Fallujah. A pathological fixation on trivial detail can obscure that commonality of evil.

Whether that's how Condoleezza Rice justifies her role in the Fallujah mosque bombing, or whether some other trick of the mind keeps her from equating her conduct with that of the men who made her father's church tremble four decades ago, is something only she knows.

[edited slightly for clarity]

Posted by Chris Clarke at April 9, 2004 08:35 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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