Ignoring a problem doesn’t solve it

ignoreA few days ago we looked at New York Times public editor Byron Calame’s expose of reporting and editing gone bad at the paper. He found problems in an April cover story from the Sunday magazine that claimed women were sentenced to 30 years in prison for nothing more than having abortions.

Turns out that the only case cited in support of the claim involved a woman who was found guilty of delivering a full-term baby and then strangling it and hiding it under her bed. Near as I can tell, pretty much everyone except for Times management feels that this is an error that needs correcting. Calame’s article explaining all the reporting and editing problems — which was remarkably kind and diplomatic — was published in full on Sunday. But no correction from the paper.

Reader Greg Popcak asked the following:

I suppose I am curious about what happens next. Is this it? Are we to expect something from the Times now that this story has been published or have they fulfilled their obligation to the public by publishing this self-criticism?

The reason I would find leaving it here so unsatisfying is that the left hand of the Times is criticising the right hand without the right hand accepting any responsibility. And while this is unsatisfying to me, I would guess that the Times feels it has fulfilled its obligation by allowing one part of its organization to criticize another part. Is that really enough?

Well, a note from the public editor is not the same as a correction. Ostensibly, public editors and ombudsmen are independent of the paper. They serve the readers’ interests. Word on the street is that the Times is reconsidering whether to have a readers’ representative. The New York Observer‘s Michael Calderone broke the story a few days ago:

[Executive Editor Bill] Keller wrote in his e-mail that “some of my colleagues believe the greater accessibility afforded by features like ‘Talk to the Newsroom’ has diminished the need for an autonomous ombudsman, or at least has opened the way for a somewhat different definition of the job.”

Mr. Keller added that “the creation of a public editor has helped the paper immensely in a period when the credibility of the media generally has been under assault.” The position at The Times was created in the wake of the Jayson Blair debacle that emerged in 2003.

I’m not the biggest fan of ombudsmen — I think members of the media should all work to be more self-aware and papers should use the funds they pay public editors to hire more reporters or editors. But is it me, or is Keller a bit tone deaf to think that people have that much more confidence in his paper after the last year than they did in 2003? Things were bad in 2003, but I don’t get the feeling they are that much better now — particularly after scandals like this latest one.

I might be more supportive of Keller if he would promptly correct errors in his paper.

Photo via DLemieux on Flickr.

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Yes, religion rattles many readers

Catholic St  Franc  SWFirst things first. It appears that the combination of a Muslim congressman, a blunt Pat Robertson and page one of Google News created a bit of a technical problem yesterday here at GetReligion. It took some time, but we think that things are better. Hang in there with us.

Meanwhile, I would like to flash back to the Divine Mrs. MZ’s post on the New York Times column by public editor Byron Calame and his concerns that the newspaper’s elite magazine did not get the job done on that now infamous Jack Hitt story about Carmen Climaco and El Salvador’s abortion laws.

While MZ is still following that story, I want to underline a few points in last weekend’s column by Deborah Howell, who holds roughly the same post — ombudsman — at The Washington Post that Calame fills (at the moment) at the Times.

Here are the top two paragraphs to set the scene:

The interests of readers and journalists often intersect in my office. Maybe a better word would be clash.

Journalists and readers don’t always think alike. In fact, journalists, who can be a contentious lot, don’t always agree with one another. One of my great challenges is negotiating the gap — sometimes a chasm — between how readers perceive journalists and how journalists perceive themselves.

Thus, Howell dedicated this column to offering some helpful New Year’s resolutions for readers and for Post journalists. She urges readers to “to feel less animus — and occasionally even be appreciative — toward those who do the vital job of keeping us informed.” Amen. Preach it, sister.

Journalists can tell when angry readers simply hate journalism and journalists — period. This is not constructive. Readers can be critical without being unrelentingly nasty. The goal is progress, not revenge.

Then she gets down to business, bringing us closer to the current tensions over the Calame column at the Times. It seems that, when it comes to ticking off readers, some subjects are hotter than others. Thus, Howell writes:

Questions of taste bedevil readers: Why would The Post run a “Mother Goose and Grimm” comic on Dec. 11 that depicted a vampire couple wondering why they get so many “bat mitzvah” invitations? Or print an entry to the Style Invitational on Dec. 10 that said “For Sale: Sally Hemings, well used”? Or let op-ed columnist Harold Meyerson refer on Dec. 20 to the “Catholic Church’s inimitable backwardness”?

The bat mitzvah line was supposed to be funny, but it offended some Jewish readers. The Sally Hemings line was tasteless, but then the Style Invitational always pushes the edge of the taste envelope. Meyerson is an opinion columnist. Still, his was a pretty broad statement. That phrase, in a column about Episcopalians’ debate about homosexuality, angered several Catholics, including Sister Mary Ann Walsh, deputy media director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who wrote: “The bigotry against Catholics expressed in [the] column … is nothing short of despicable.”

Baby1 03 01Which leads Howell to this simple statement:

Resolution for The Post: Think twice about publishing something distasteful or overreaching on religion, race and gender — especially in a supposedly humorous way.

Behold, once again, the ongoing presence of religion in these discussions of tensions between the public and the press. This subject is not going away, is it?

I would add that screwing up the facts is a crucial element of “overreaching,” especially on a global, nationsl, religional and local news topic as complex as religion. This is especially true on topics as explosive as abortion (the media-bias research topic that never goes away) and, as Howell notes, Israel and the Middle East.

Religion is a topic that gives many journalists sweaty palms and readers flushed faces. There is no need to deny this. The answer is better journalism, the kind of journalism produced by experienced journalists who respect the complexities and sensitivities of the religion beat. In other words, we need more journalism by journalists who “get” religion.

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Irony in the Keith Ellison story

ellisonLet’s give a big round of applause to The Washington Post‘s gossip columnists, Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts, for cornering an ironic bit of religion news Wednesday regarding the swearing in of the first Muslim in Congress. The irony of the story was not fully fleshed out, which is a pity because there is plenty of it.

Here’s the crux of the Post story:

Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, found himself under attack last month when he announced he’d take his oath of office on the Koran — especially from Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode, who called it a threat to American values.

Yet the holy book at tomorrow’s ceremony has an unassailably all-American provenance. We’ve learned that the new congressman — in a savvy bit of political symbolism — will hold the personal copy once owned by Thomas Jefferson.

Now, Goode happens to represent the district that contains Albemarle County, the location of Jefferson’s birth. How’s that for ironic? Goode apparently didn’t feel like commenting for this story, which is not surprising considering the reverence that Virginians generally feel for President Jefferson.

But what’s even more ironic is that Argetsinger and Roberts do not mention that Jefferson once used a razor blade to the New Testament, removing its references to the supernatural but maintaining the moral teachings of Jesus Christ. Critics of Ellison, like Rep. Goode, are not likely to hold up Mr. Jefferson’s shredding of the Bible as the epitome of American religious tradition.

Another irony to consider is that Jefferson’s copy of the Koran is an English translation. A translation of the Koran is considered only for personal use and is more accurately referred to as an “interpretation.” It is technically not even a holy book.

irony2To recap, America’s first Muslim congressman is using an interpretation of the Koran owned by a man who sliced up the Bible for his swearing-in ceremony. Except that he isn’t.

Sarah Wheaton of The New York Times, in a very helpful blog post, clarifies that Ellison won’t be swearing in on anything:

Mr. Ellison is not swearing in on the Koran. And no incoming members of Congress swear in on the Bible. Everyone is sworn in together during a private ceremony without any religious text. It’s only during a ceremonial photo-op that a book may be brought out.

Well, that basically ruins all the fun. The actual swearing-in ceremony, contrary to nearly every news story on this matter, does not contain a religious element. The religious element is only included in the purely optional photo-op. How’s that for the American tradition? You can’t help but wonder why the media have not covered this story more intelligently.

I would like to suggest that the real story is the message that a Muslim-American congressman sends to the world. That’s the story reporters should be looking at.

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God told me to type this — maybe

image540926xLet me begin with a personal appeal.

Dear Lord, Creator of heaven and earth, please speak to the Rev. Pat Robertson tonight. Please tell him to shut up, sooner rather than later. Urge him to retire to his prayer closet and close the door for a few years. Maybe he can bench press some massive leather-bound copies of ancient Bible commentaries, or something like that.

Amen.

Honest, GetReligion readers, you already know what I think about this situation. I know that it’s news when Robertson gets another shiver down his spine and decides to speak his mind on the air. I know that it’s news, but is it really as important as all this?

I guess so. Here’s the Associated Press, via CNN:

In what has become an annual tradition of prognostications, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson said Tuesday God has told him that a terrorist attack on the United States would result in “mass killing” late in 2007.

“I’m not necessarily saying it’s going to be nuclear,” he said during his news-and-talk television show “The 700 Club” on the Christian Broadcasting Network. “The Lord didn’t say nuclear. But I do believe it will be something like that.”

Robertson said God told him during a recent prayer retreat that major cities and possibly millions of people will be affected by the attack, which should take place sometime after September.

OK, here is what I said not that long ago in a column for Poynter.org. At that point, I was pleading with journalists to realize that Robertson is a great quote machine, but that he is way out of the evangelical mainstream and rarely within shouting distance of the Christian mainstream. Thus, I wrote:

… (We) have reached the point where some journalists are happy to see Robertson’s face on television screens, because every time he opens his mouth he reinforces their stereotype of a conservative Christian. And they may sincerely believe that he remains a powerful leader among American evangelicals, someone who provides an appropriate “conservative” voice during coverage of controversial events.

If this is true, then why is it so hard to find mainstream evangelicals and traditional Catholics who defend Robertson? Outside of a cable TV niche, where are his legions? In short, I’m convinced it is time for journalists to drop Robertson from their lists of “usual suspects.” That he ceases to be someone they turn to for quotes from “evangelical leaders.” He is a straw man.

Nevertheless, I will concede that there may be a valid news story lurking in this latest tempest in cable-TV land.

There are Christians who pray for God to give them parking spaces and there are also Christians who claim, on a regular basis, that God speaks directly to them.

Well, who are these people and why do they say this? Where do they fit, in the wide spectrum of Christian spirituality down through the ages? Are they the norm? Should they be taken seriously?

teresalrgI mean, it’s one thing for a determined nun in the slums of Calcutta, after facing the rigors of serving the poorest of the poor, to believe that God is telling her to start an order of nuns to carry on this work around the world.

When something like that happens her claims of revelation will be pondered by other people before they affect the lives of others. These kinds of personal revelations can be controversial, but they eventually must be claimed as valid by others — including the people who speak with authority to a Mother Teresa.

This is an ancient model of revelation and interpretation. Who uses this model today? Who does not?

Robertson is something else. He hears from God and, the next thing you know, he’s in front of a television camera and the green light is on. In whose name does he speak? What is his authority, in terms of Christian faith and tradition? Is he even typical of the rising Pentecostal tide in other parts of world Christianity?

I mean, note the personal pronouns in this new Robertson quote:

“I have a relatively good track record,” he said. “Sometimes I miss.”

In May, Robertson said God told him that storms and possibly a tsunami were to crash into America’s coastline in 2006. Even though the U.S. was not hit with a tsunami, Robertson on Tuesday cited last spring’s heavy rains and flooding in New England as partly fulfilling the prediction.

That’s all for now, friends. Sometimes I get angry and it’s best that I stop typing.

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Ford’s quiet faith was just wonderful

gerald ford funeral processionThe passing of Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States, brings us the usual slate of obituaries about the man who led the country after the scandalized President Richard Nixon resigned. Some of the articles break new ground and are affecting current debates — think The Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward — while others are there just as historical reminders and are great for those of us too young (or still unborn during the 1970s) to remember Ford’s presidency or public life.

In terms of religion news connected to the Ford story, little new dribbled out as far as I can tell. But what was published — the fact that Ford had a quiet faith — is interesting because of what it says about those who are writing the articles. These pieces weren’t written 20 years ago. They weren’t written by reporters with nothing to do. They were written with current events and a current cast of characters in mind.

You get some interesting results.

Take, for instance, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham’s Washington Post column on the quiet faith of Ford. Meacham draws out the religious aspects in his speech explaining his pardon of Nixon and then tells us all to emulate Ford:

Then Ford explicitly spoke of the “higher power” he had mentioned when he was sworn in. “The Constitution is the supreme law of our land, and it governs our actions as citizens. Only the laws of God, which govern our consciences, are superior to it.” In a New Testament allusion (“Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him”), Ford said: “I deeply believe in equal justice for all Americans, whatever their station or former station. The law, whether human or divine, is no respecter of persons; but the law is a respecter of reality.” The reality, Ford thought, was that a trial of the former president would most likely be unfair, drawn out and destructive. And finally: “I do believe, with all my heart and mind and spirit, that I, not as president but as a humble servant of God, will receive justice without mercy if I fail to show mercy.”

This is an extraordinary thing to say: Ford was linking his own fate beyond time to his actions within time. The idea that God punishes or rewards us, individually or collectively, for what we do on Earth, either in our own lives or in the life of the nation, is rooted in the American story.

. . . In his quiet way, Gerald Ford used that pulpit more than most, and his essential message — of forgiveness and grace — is one worth remembering today, and in years to come.

Thanks for the Sunday-school lesson, Pastor Meacham. I hope the Newsweek editorial staff was listening. God will punish those who do bad things on earth and greatly reward those who do well. And that’s the American way, according to the Rev. Meacham.

Did it ever cross the minds of the people at The Washington Post Company, which owns Newsweek, that value judgments made by senior editors are not exactly in the best tradition of unbiased reporting?

Meacham has done tremendous work uncovering the history of religion in public life. His American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation is a great read about our nation’s history of religion in politics.

But when does a journalist go from fact-gatherer to making value judgments that amount to the lesson of the day?

For an example of quality journalism relating to the religious life of President Ford, check out this Time piece by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. Much of the information in the piece is historical, but by interviewing one of Ford’s closest friends, gospel-film executive Billy Zeoli, the reporters are able to expand our knowledge and not simply regurgitate information and attach an opinion at the end.

Much of the piece focuses on Ford’s decision not to publicize his faith and his acts to eliminate the blatant attempts by Nixon to use religion to advance his political career, but I found this paragraph most interesting:

When Ford became Vice President in the fall of 1973, Zeoli began sending him a weekly devotional memo that would be waiting on Ford’s desk on Monday mornings. It always had the same title — “God’s Got a Better Idea” — and began with scripture (always from the King James version, Ford’s preferred translation) and ended with a prayer. Zeoli sent 146 devotionals in all, every week through Ford’s presidency. “Not only were they profound in their meaning and judicious in their selection,” Ford said, “I believe they were also divinely inspired.” Beyond the memos, Zeoli and Ford would meet privately every four or five weeks for prayer and Bible study. Their conversations took place either in the Oval Office or the family quarters upstairs.

Ford considered the devotionals “divinely inspired”? Now that’s a topic for conversation. Divinely inspired as in they-should-be-attached-to-the-Bible inspired? By the way, what was Ford’s view on biblical inspiration?

Photo courtesy of my finance Noelle Myers, a federal employee in Washington who had the day off thanks to Ford’s funeral and was so kind to take photos of the motorcade Monday morning.

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What, then, deserves a correction?

colberttruthiness 1New York Times public editor Byron Calame has quite the challenging job. The Times is one of the most scrutinized papers in the world and Calame has to separate legitimate and illegitimate gripes over its reportage, story selection and headlines.

I encourage you to read his entire column from Sunday. He digs into a New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story from April about women who have been prosecuted for violating El Salvador’s laws against abortion.

The story was written by Jack Hitt, a contributing writer to the Times, Harper’s and Mother Jones, among other publications. He’s written about abortion before for the Times.

Hitt interviewed two women who had been prosecuted under El Salvador’s abortion laws. D.C., who constitutes the bulk of the story, ends up receiving no punishment. But Carmen Climaco, the second and final key anecdote of the story, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Hitt says that she aborted a fetus at 18 weeks but that the abortion was recast as infanticide by strangling:

The truth was certainly — well, not in the “middle” so much as somewhere else entirely. Somewhere like this: She’d had a clandestine abortion at 18 weeks, not all that different from D.C.’s, something defined as absolutely legal in the United States. It’s just that she’d had an abortion in El Salvador.

That’s how the story ends — quite dramatically. The only problem is that Hitt’s reporting was less than adequate. Here’s how Calame summarizes the problems:

It turns out, however, that trial testimony convinced a court in 2002 that Ms. Climaco’s pregnancy had resulted in a full-term live birth, and that she had strangled the “recently born.” A three-judge panel found her guilty of “aggravated homicide,” a fact the article noted. But without bothering to check the court document containing the panel’s findings and ruling, the article’s author, Jack Hitt, a freelancer, suggested that the “truth” was different.

Calame eloquently and diplomatically lays out many of the problems with the piece. He interviews Hitt and Times editors about the reporting and editing. He finds out that Hitt never checked the court documents on the case while preparing his story. This is particularly egregious since the Climaco anecdote was the only one supporting Hitt’s claim that women go to prison for 30 years for nothing more than abortions in El Salvador.

Hitt says that no editor or fact-checker ever asked him if he had checked court records. Hitt tells Calame he thought getting the documents would be difficult. Without any difficulty at all, however, Calame got a stringer in El Salvador to walk into the court building without making any prior arrangements and walk out with an official copy of the court ruling.

It turned out the only 18-week estimate mentioned in the court ruling came from a doctor who hadn’t seen any fetus and whose deductions, based on the size of the uterus 17 hours after the birth, were found by the three judges to be flawed, Calame notes. The panel that convicted Climaco used other medical evidence from a physician who conducted an autopsy to determine that the pregnancy had a 38- to 42-week duration. Another autopsy finding showed that the lungs of the victim floated when submerged in water, which indicated the baby had breathed at birth. That means that, unlike what Hitt dramatically said in his final lines, Climaco’s baby didn’t die under circumstances that would be legal in the United States.

Hitt also used an unpaid translator who consults for an abortion advocacy group in El Salvador for his interviews with D.C. and Climaco. That same group later used the Times story for fundraising purposes.

Anyone who has followed the sorry state of abortion coverage is disappointed but not likely to be surprised by all this. We’ve discussed the interesting politics of choosing anecdotes in the past. But what I do find surprising is how Calame’s thorough reporting to unveil — and diplomatic efforts to correct — the errors in the story are completely rebuffed by Times management.

After committing an error, a quick correction is the easiest course of action. Reporters hate getting things wrong, but when you do you just have to admit it and improve your work in the future. Let’s look at how the Times handled its error:

After being queried by the office of the publisher about a possible error, Craig Whitney, who is also the paper’s standards editor, drafted a response that was approved by Gerald Marzorati, who is also the editor of the magazine. It was forwarded on Dec. 1 to the office of the publisher, which began sending it to complaining readers.

The response said that while the “fair and dispassionate” story noted Ms. Climaco’s conviction of aggravated homicide, the article “concluded that it was more likely that she had had an illegal abortion.” The response ended by stating, “We have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts as reported in our article, which was not part of any campaign to promote abortion.”

But let’s give the Times the benefit of the doubt. That was before the court documents had been translated into English. Surely after that happened, the paper set about issuing a correction, right?

After the English translation of the court ruling became available on Dec. 8, I asked Mr. Marzorati if he continued to have “no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts” in the article. His e-mail response seemed to ignore the ready availability of the court document containing the findings from the trial before the three-judge panel and its sentencing decision. He referred to it as the “third ruling,” since the trial is the third step in the judicial process.

The article was “as accurate as it could have been at the time it was written,” Mr. Marzorati wrote to me. “I also think that if the author and we editors knew of the contents of that third ruling, we would have qualified what we said about Ms. Climaco. Which is NOT to say that I simply accept the third ruling as ‘true’; El Salvador’s judicial system is terribly politicized.”

As accurate as it could have been at the time it was written? Let’s see, the court ruling was in 2002. The story was written in 2006. How, then, is the article as accurate as it could have been at the time it was written? Am I missing some basic logic about the space-time continuum?

NYTmagnifyingglassFurther, the debate isn’t over whether The New York Times, er, El Salvador’s judicial system is terribly politicized. The debate is over whether Hitt accurately portrayed the facts of the case. This is nothing short of a complete breakdown of the standards and editing process at the Times.

Abortion is such a contentious issue. It simply must be handled with extreme carefulness and a diligent checking of facts. Calame seems exasperated by the editors’ steadfast refusal to correct the error. Unfortunately, I think this does quite a bit to further erode any reputation of fairness the Times clings to on this issue.

Another note — a quick Google search on Hitt shows that Mother Jones isn’t the only liberal publication for which he writes. Calculate, for a moment, the probability of the Times sending a Roman Catholic from National Review down to El Salvador to freelance on the issue. I’ll save you the time. It’s zero. Perhaps the Times just wants to make sure that the folks who cover the issue have similar personal views on abortion as Linda “I am the Alpha and Omega of All Things Factual” Greenhouse. But after all the criticism Times editors have faced over their abortion reporters this year, you wonder how that’s working out for them. Unless abortion advocacy — and not truthfulness — is the goal of this newspaper.

Or maybe there’s something I’m missing. Anyone out there want to attack Calame’s perspective and defend Times management?

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On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a climbing wall

Bottle of ChampagneI usually spend New Year’s Eve in New York City out and about until the wee hours. This year I went to church for a special concert by the Concordia Theological Seminary’s fantastic Kantorei.

The service, which marked Christ’s circumcision, also featured a wedding of two of my friends. I was rather impressed how well my pastor preached on the two occasions. The other thing I was impressed by was just how many people were there. Apparently going to church on New Year’s Eve is quite common for Christians who are better than not me!

So I was pleased to see new religion reporter Jacqueline Salmon‘s piece in The Washington Post on evangelical churches and megachurches that host New Year’s Eve services and parties. The cute subhead? “Many Celebrations Across Region Focus on Religion Rather Than Spirits”:

Such large and elaborate New Year’s celebrations are growing increasingly popular among evangelical churches. The events provide the faithful with family-friendly festivities and — just as important, say church leaders — they are an attractive way to help pull unbelievers into the Christian fold.

As the year draws to a close, “people want to make positive changes in their lives,” said Georgette Patterson, director of marketing for New Life Anointed Ministries International, known as The Life. At church New Year’s Eve celebrations, “they hear a message that is uplifting.”

At megachurch McLean Bible, the all-night New Year’s Eve party for teenagers has swelled from a few hundred to 1,500 kids in the past three years. Last night’s celebration, at McLean Bible’s worship complex off Route 7 in Fairfax County, featured Christian rock bands, video games, a climbing wall and movies.

At midnight, several hundred youthful attendees were expected to come forward to be “saved,” said Denny Harris, the church’s director of ministry operations.

I wonder how they are able to predict how many people will convert? Also, I love the scare quotes around saved.

Still, Salmon covered churches from Maryland, Virginia and Washington for the piece, which was nice. A good story all around.

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Saddam’s Koran moment

saddam and the koranWhat is the significance of Saddam Hussein holding a Koran as he headed to the gallows Saturday morning? It’s not the first time a brutal tyrant reached for religious symbols as the people he formerly ruled sent him to his Creator. And it won’t be the last. The job of the journalist is to tell us what it means and how the Iraqi people perceived the symbol.

First off, notice how a Reuters article placed the Koran in the lead and the Times of India website placed it in the headline:

Clutching a Koran and refusing a hood, Saddam Hussein was hanged at dawn on Saturday. It was a dramatic, violent end for a dictator who ruled Iraq for three decades before he was toppled by a US-led invasion in 2003.

Note the Koran’s treatment by the Associated Press in the sixth paragraph:

His jet black hair was carefully combed, his salt-and-pepper beard neatly clipped. He carried a Koran.

Is the Koran a mere detail to be added along with the (dyed) color of his hair? What message is Saddam trying to send? Is it wrong of me to suggest that perhaps the Butcher of Baghdad, despised by so many for his secularism, had something of a reconversion to Islam before he was executed?

The more likely story is that Saddam, recognizing like Charles I that people would scrutinize his final actions, wanted to send some sort of message. But what message did he want to send and what message did the Iraqi people and Arab Muslims at large receive?

These are just a few questions that I’m hoping are answered in the coming weeks as we watch the fallout of the execution of one of the world’s most brutal dictators.

I thought it was interesting that The Washington Post did not mention the Koran until about 30 paragraphs into its magnificently detailed account of the execution:

Hussein carried a dark green Koran in his clasped hands, witnesses said. At the steps to the gallows, he turned to [prosecutor Munqith al-Faroun] and asked him to give the book to the son of his co-defendant Awad Haman Bander. Bander, like Hussein, was sentenced to death for the killings of 148 Shiite men and boys from the northern town of Dujail.

“What if I don’t see him?” Faroun asked.

“Keep it until you meet with any of my family members,” Faroun recalled Hussein saying.

The significance of the Koran, or lack thereof, is a story in and of itself. But it’s only the surface story. The deeper story is Saddam’s spiritual state as he headed to the gallows. The clutched Koran is a good place to start.

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