The Magazine

Scuttle the USS Murtha

From the Scrapbook

May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32
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Every now and then the congressional habit of naming federal programs and structures—buildings, aircraft carriers, courthouses, grants and scholarships, military installations—after members of Congress is not such a good idea. The Scrapbook remembers with fondness, for example, the 1977 bribery case against former Rep. Edward A. Garmatz, D‑Md., which was prosecuted in the Edward A. Garmatz Federal Courthouse in Baltimore. (The charges were eventually dropped when a witness proved unreliable.) Now the Navy might be about to perpetrate a similar embarrassment.

That’s because Secretary Ray Mabus, a former Democratic congressman and governor of Mississippi, has decided to name a new San Antonio-class warship after Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who died in February. This proposal has caused something of a sensation on the Internet, and especially among -Marines. Not because Murtha was himself a Marine—as he was, serving as an officer in Vietnam and in the reserves while a member of Congress—but because, after he turned against the Iraq war in 2005, he declared publicly that Marines accused of killing civilians in Haditha had done so “in cold blood.” At the time of Murtha’s outburst, no formal investigation of the incident, much less trial, had taken place; and as it happens, charges against six Marines were eventually dropped, one was acquitted, and one more awaits trial on reduced charges in the case. 

A fair number of Marines, along with people who have never been Marines, find the prospect of honoring Murtha by naming a naval vessel—that would, among other things, transport Marines in and out of combat—after him to be especially disheartening. The Scrapbook agrees. We acknowledge Murtha’s honorable record of military service—but there are dozens, even hundreds, of veterans (including onetime members of Congress) more deserving of the honor than a famously disagreeable politician who used his considerable powers as a congressman to publicly slander fighting Marines in Iraq.

There is another reason to think twice before naming an American warship for John Murtha: He was not honest. Routinely cited by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and various news organizations, as one of the most corrupt members of Congress, he was notorious for his hostility to ethics legislation and famous for the hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks he shunted toward his district—including defense appropriations for companies that employed his brother and a former staffer. You can also watch a 1980 video of Murtha on YouTube expressing interest in a $50,000 bribe proffered by an undercover FBI agent in the Abscam sting. 

In the end, prosecutors decided not to indict Murtha in Abscam, and he testified against two fellow Democrats who had been indicted. But to watch and listen to the late congressman in action on that video—with his customary combination of profanity and boastfulness—is to make the idea of a USS Murtha especially grotesque.

‘South Park’ Goes South

Some, not all, Muslims object to depictions of the Prophet Muhammad on religious grounds. Among those who do object there is a smaller element whose fanaticism and violence cast a harsh light not only on Islam but on the moral courage of the non-Muslim world. 

This was dramatically demonstrated five years ago when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of satirical cartoons depicting the prophet, which resulted in mayhem and killings in the Middle East by radical Muslims. That, in turn, was followed by a book on the controversy, The Cartoons that Shook the World by Jytte Klausen, which appeared last year. Unfortunately, the publisher, Yale University Press, declined to print the actual cartoons in the book out of fear that they might inspire the wrath of Islamicists. This craven action by Yale, one of the world’s leading academic publishers, was taken on the advice of a panel of experts (including Fareed Zakaria, ’86, of Newsweek) assembled by the press. This past January an axe-wielding Somali Muslim attempted to murder one of the cartoonists, Kurt Westgaard, at his home in Denmark.

Alas, The Scrapbook is not especially surprised that institutions such as Newsweek and Yale—longtime beneficiaries of the Western tradition of academic freedom and enlightenment​—should be so easily intimidated by the enemies of human liberty. But we were genuinely surprised—and in a melancholy way, amused—by the surrender of Comedy Central, the cable TV network, two weeks ago when its freedom of speech was challenged by an Islamicist website.

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