Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The President and the Shoe

What should President George Bush do with Muntader al-Zaidi?  For those who missed it, he is the 29-year-old Iraqi journalist who lobbed two shoes at him during a press conference in Baghdad Sunday.  In Arab culture, showing the bottom of the shoe, let alone throwing it at a person, is among the worst of insults.  

Immediately after throwing the shoes and yelling, “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!” (for the first shoe) and “This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!” (for the second), the reporter was tackled.  Seconds later he was dragged out of the room and beaten while the press conference went on, his screams audible.  There are conflicting reports -- depending on whether you are reading U.S. or non-U.S. reports -- as to whether American security forces stepped in to stop the beating. (BBC News, December 16, “Shoe thrower 'beaten in custody'”)

So, with his last remaining days in office, an unexpected and unwelcome sideshow during his final visit to Iraq, and historically low approval ratings, what should he do?  

Well, the first thing he should have done was to stop the press conference and made sure there was no beating going on.  If the man was detained but not being physically harmed, he could have carried on but made sure he announced he was going to talk with the man as soon as it was over.  

But that's crazy!  Why would he talk to a man who had just publicly insulted him?   Because he’s the leader of a great country.   He needs to take the high road, to show that he is not deaf to the pain and suffering going on, that he takes seriously the grievances of the people there.  To show that he would not mearly laugh it off.  It was a mistake to say that the action of one person did not represent the feelings of the many.  In this case, and judging from the countless news reports from around the Middle East of supportive actions, it seems that Mr. al-Zaidi does indeed represent the mood of the region.

Another reason to meet with the man is because he’s a Christian.  He would do well to emulate Pope John Paul II after he was attacked -- with deadly force, not merely shoes -- by Mehmet Ali Agca.  The pope visited him when he was physically able -- often.  President Bush would do much for his reputation and for American-Arab relations if he took this man seriously and truly listened to him.  He would also take his faith seriously, faith which requires us to turn the other cheek, to forgive those who hate us, to account for our own actions.  To make sure the man was physically safe and to listen to him are supremely Christian acts.   

Next, the president would do well to immediately pardon him.  In his waning days in office, he will pardon many people who have caused more harm.  He even pardoned a Turkey at Thanksgiving, so pardoning a man who insulted him seems a small thing.

Wait, you say!  He can’t pardon the man because it is the Iraqi government which controls his fate.  True.  Still, President Bush could easily put pressure on the government to let the man go.  He could publicly state -- to the press of the world -- that he forgives the man and is formally requesting the Iraqi government to drop all charges against him.  It would carry weight with President Maliki and would make a huge impression on the world.  And let’s face it, the man faces between two and seven years in prison for what was an inappropriate but spontaneous and ultimately harmless gesture.  

Let’s also show some Christian understanding.  If you had reported day after day on the carnage in your country, witnessed countless deaths and maiming especially among the poorest of the poor; if you had been arrested and interrogated twice by U.S. forces simply for doing your job as a reporter; if you had been kidnapped and tortured, you just might feel like throwing something a little harder than a shoe.  Perhaps we ought to even give the guy credit for a little restraint.

Finally, President Bush would do well not to duck the issue (pardon the pun) but to publicly address it with the Arab people.  He could let them know he understood the seriousness of the insult, that he disagreed with the methods but knew Mr. al-Zaidi spoke for many.  He could tell them that, while he did the best he knew how, he also realized how many were hurt because of it.  He could apologize for his part in the pain even if he continued to insist on the necessity of the war.  

After all, Christians detest administering pain more than receiving it.  Christians seek forgiveness from those they harm or offend.  Christians are quick to forgive those who harm them.    And, of course, politicians do what is expedient.  But in this case, the Christian action would also be the most expedient, making Mr. Bush look more understanding, compassionate, and in tune with the people around him than he has appeared so far.

So pardon him, Mr. President.  It’ll be good for your soul.