If you don't listen to talk radio, you may have missed this month's best "useful idiots" quote, to borrow a phrase commonly used to describe Americans whose gullibility allows them to be used by our enemies.
The story begins with an Internet porn site called "Iraqi Babes," which pretended to show American GIs raping Iraqi women. It was shut down early in May after WorldNetDaily did an online story about how the fake images were being used as propaganda by Muslim extremists - but not before Akbar Muhammad of the Nation of Islam sent the photos to Sadiki Kambon, director of Boston's Black Community Information Center. Kambon and Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner enlarged them for a poster, then called a news conference at Boston City Hall to expose more bad behavior by American troops.
Most of the reporters who attended were suspicious and their newspapers did not carry the story. The Boston Globe reporter was also skeptical and mentioned her concern in the text of her story, which ran on May 12 with the attention-grabbing headline, "Councilor takes up Iraq issue; Turner releases purported images of rape by soldiers." Editors included a large photo (which was reduced in size for later editions) of Turner and Kambon holding the porno site poster.
By midmorning, following phone calls from outraged readers, the mistake was realized. But by then a furious Pat Whitley at WRKO was sharing it with his listeners.
Thursday's Globe carried a retraction as Turner and Sadiki tried to justify themselves on various talk shows, mostly by blaming the newspaper for believing them and printing the photos!
My favorite quote was the defensive statement by Turner that "it was a private press conference - no one was there except the press." I couldn't bear to think such idiocy might be heard only by talk radio fans, so I'm sharing it with everyone I know, including you.
Of course, there are other kinds of "useful idiots" - like the soldiers who abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison. Many good Americans were shocked by the assault on our Norman Rockwell self-image; but when we stop to think about it, we probably all know someone who, given the opportunity, could jeopardize a war effort by behaving badly and then photographing themselves doing so.
Newspapers and TV news carry daily stories of incredible stupidity, not to mention child abuse, street gang shootings, murder by rejected lovers, drug dealing, manslaughter by drunk drivers, larceny, rape and general mayhem. None of this changes the fact that most of us are OK and relatively sensible, and that evildoing is not officially sanctioned national policy in the United States of America.
Usually the term "useful idiots" is meant to describe people who think they can deal with evil by giving a bad guy a hug. There's nothing wrong with adding peace, meditation, even Gandhi-like passive resistance to one's repertoire. But the enemy must never get the idea that violent response will never be an option.
Father Edgar, who taught my high school class about Jesus' directive to "turn the other cheek," added that, if this doesn't work, then punch the aggressor in the nose. Of course, he was Irish, so maybe that isn't official policy from Rome.
Actually, the term "useful idiots" was coined by Lenin to contemptuously describe people in the Western democracies who would defend the Soviet Union, even as it sought to overthrow their own form of government. It was gleefully adopted by the right as an easy description of leftist activists for whom America is always in the wrong.
Syndicated columnist Mona Charon even wrote a book titled "Useful Idiots," which used hundreds of damning quotations and other hard evidence to show that liberals were, almost without exception, "inclined to excuse, justify or ignore the grave sins of our adversaries while always calling down the harshest possible judgment on the U.S."
Most recently, the term was applied to the anti-war activists who went to Iraq to offer their services to Saddam Hussein in resisting the "foreign invaders" who would prevent him from indulging in his various inhuman activities.
On the other hand, partisan defense of wrongdoing by our own government is also wrong: Rush Limbaugh's comparison of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse to a college hazing was idiotic. The "Iraqi Babes" photos were fake, but there may be worse true images coming to us before this is over.
The smart, fair way to address this issue is to publish, side by side, the photos of abused prisoners with the photos of gleeful Iraqis dancing on the ashes of murdered American contractors, and asking the viewer how he would feel about the prisoners if they were also the murderers. Then, of course, it is important to make sure that this is actually the case.
I personally don't care what happens to the men who planned 9/11 and perpetrate other atrocities, in Iraq or here. But I want my government to determine guilt before it punishes, and to be as good as it can be under the horrible circumstances of war.