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Nina Burleigh Headshot

A Bowl of Scorpions

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My mother, an Assyrian Christian born in Kirkuk, Iraq, emigrated to the United States in the 1950s. A retired school-teacher now, she spent the last three years glued to her armchair in Chicago, watching the destruction of her homeland at the hands of the nation of her children and citizenship. The televised gore, and ensuing rage and depression did a number on her. She just barely survived a triple bypass and valve replacement last month.

I explain this as way of explaining what I was doing in Kirkuk in the summer of 1968, at the age of eight.

I've been to Iraq several times as a journalist, but my first trip over was to visit family members my siblings and I, American children, had never met. Our Iraqi relatives doted on us, lavished us with treats, entertained us. I am embarrassed to say we whined about their food and were deeply bored by the incomprehensible language.

One twilight evening, as the broiling sun was going down, to amuse us an uncle took my brother and me out to the desert - or what we thought was desert - on the edge of town. Everywhere we looked, the flat, dry brown earth was pocked with tiny, half-moon shaped holes. He'd brought along an old, cracked bowl and a bent kitchen soon, and with the spoon he scratched away at some of the holes. Out crawled the inhabitants, giant, hideous scorpions. Soon, he'd collected a black one and a yellow one. He herded them into the bowl together, where they proceeded to raise their horrible spiked tails at each other and grip each other with their nasty claws, rolling over and over.

My mother ran out and dragged us away from this show before we got to see the creatures kill each other, which our uncle had promised us they would do before our eyes.

I don't know why I didn't remember this incredibly apt metaphor for our national involvement in Iraq until recently. Many weirder things happened that summer, in America and in Iraq, and my little eight-year-old brain soaked it all up. I have a lot of memories from that lost, almost unbelievable era when it was safe for American children to visit Iraq, when Iraqis, in fact, admired and adored what they thought our nation stood for. There are, needless to say, no family members left in that blighted land.

I guess that makes me a sort of expert on Iraq, so listen up.

Like some other writers posting here tonight, I couldn't bring myself to watch the President's speech last night. It is sufficient to scan his words in black and white off newsprint, devoid of the sound and sight of his delivery. That way, the words are as meaningless to me as they are to the man who reads them off the teleprompter.

Not watching the speech, however, doesn't mean that the President's intentions haven't registered. On the contrary, I recognize, as do so many others writing here tonight, that this speech marks a rather terrifying turning point in our situation. The speech was confirmation of the President's sheer unfitness, yes, possible mental illness, but it was also a goad to us, the people of this good but abused nation, to acknowledge what desperate straits we are in, right now.

The Democrats in Congress now constitute our planet's last, best hope for avoiding a regional war in the Middle East, which is about to be provoked by a man with the mind of a mad little boy poking a bowl of scorpions. With that dire understanding in mind, here's a plan for the Democrats.

It's not about playing to your base right now. These are dangerous, desperate times. Bush has proven himself utterly unable to make anything resembling "foreign policy." He is surrounded by know-nothing sycophants, thieves and neocon zombies who will not try to stop him. With the executive operating as a military dictatorship and planning to expand a dangerously misguided war without approval, and the judiciary in its pocket, your duty is much greater right now than figuring out how to win the next election. It's about the Constitution, stupid.

The regime must be stalled. Now. Use the first hundred days to deliver subpoenas to every hack in the White House, OEOB and Pentagon and make those busy plotters lawyer up. Gather every smart lawyer in your ranks and slow the Bush machine with every legal mechanism in the books. If the right wing elves could do it over a blow job with a popular president, surely you have enough ammunition with war crimes, negative approval ratings and enough malfeasance and inefficiency to keep the GSA busy for years.

Finally, start a back channel negotiation with Iran and Syria and Europeans. Now. As a recent Iraqi émigré explained to me in an interview that will appear in next week's New York Magazine, the Iranians are already IN Iraq. Farsi is heard as often as Arabic in the markets of Basra. There will be no end to this war without their participation. Explain to them that if they can resist responding to whatever provocation our mad President throws at them, the United States will soon work with them, not against them, to help insure a secure and peaceful region.

Two years is a long time to wait for the white hats to come save us from this grim folly. Time really is running out.