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ROSA BROOKS

The new soft-shoe

December 18, 2008|ROSA BROOKS

If you're going to throw something, better a shoe than a grenade or a bomb.

I'm not defending Muntather Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who flung both his shoes at President Bush during a Baghdad news conference. However tempting the target, journalists are supposed to fling barbed words at those they dislike, not heavy objects.

Still, not to worry. The whole episode sent nary a shiver through Bush's sunny little universe. Bush merely expressed his mystification about why Zaidi might have hurled those shoes. "I don't know what the guy's cause is," he told reporters brightly after Zaidi was beaten and dragged away by Iraqi guards.

Maybe no one had bothered to translate Zaidi's Arabic words for the president. As Zaidi threw the first shoe, he cried, "This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!" As he flung the second, he was even more explicit: "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!"

Iraqi or not, most people other than our outgoing president can probably understand Zaidi's motives, even if we don't really hold with shoe throwing.

The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq triggered a spiral of conflict that has so far left somewhere between 89,892 and 1.3 million Iraqi civilians dead (the numbers are contested) out of a population of just 25 million. It doesn't take much imagination to see that an Iraqi might hold a bit of a grudge.

It's also easy enough to understand why Zaidi became an instant hero around much of the globe.

Across the Arab and Muslim world, gleeful crowds have waved shoes in the air along with signs calling for Zaidi's speedy release and a speedy change in American policies. To much of the world -- less rich and less powerful than the United States -- the United States in the Bush era looks like a greedy, bullying nation. No surprise if plenty of people would be delighted to emulate Zaidi and throw their own shoes at Bush.

Or something more lethal, like a grenade or a bomb.

There's a lot of anger out there. Some is directed at Bush, some at the United States, and some is more free-floating, directed at all those who are imagined to have power or to be allied with or important to those with power.

Compare Zaidi with Ajmal Amir, the 21-year-old Pakistani who took part in the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India's financial capital. In some ways, his story is similar to Zaidi's, full of early lessons in injustice and hopelessness. But his anger was more lethally expressed.

He reportedly grew up in Faridkot, a small town in Pakistan's Punjab province where few were literate, nearly all were desperately poor and opportunities for prosperity were almost nonexistent. In 2005, he ran away from home. Unable to make a living, he was recruited in 2007 by the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. In Lashkar training programs, he was taught to connect his own early poverty to broader injustices wrought by India, by Israel and by the United States.

Eventually, he washed up in Mumbai with nine other Lashkar trainees. But they threw grenades instead of shoes at their targets, and followed up with a hail of bullets, ultimately killing more than 170 people, including several from Israel and the United States.

This is not a new story. In today's world, anger and powerlessness are expressed, more and more, through the medium of the hidden bomb and the hurled object: the Molotov cocktail, the stones flung by Palestinian boys at Israeli tanks, the grenades of Mumbai's terrorists, suicide bombers throwing their own explosives-laden bodies into spaces packed tight with human beings.

Paradoxically, maybe, that's why I find myself almost cheered by Zaidi the Iraqi shoe thrower and the folk-hero stature that he is attaining.

Zaidi could have lobbed a grenade at a passing U.S. convoy or strapped on a suicide bomber's vest and hurled himself toward the Green Zone. But he didn't. He just threw his shoes, a gesture laden with symbolism but not truly dangerous to anyone but himself (he was lucky the Secret Service agents didn't shoot him).

By willingly risking prison and death just to throw those shoes, he reminded the powerful and powerless alike that a single symbolic gesture can be more effective than a thousand grenades.

No, shoe throwing's not exactly a form of nonviolent resistance -- and Zaidi's not up there with Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But if Zaidi inspires a new global trend of shoe throwing, I'll take that over bomb throwing any day.

--

rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

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