In early industrial French factories two centuries ago, workers feared that they would soon be replaced by the large machines companies were putting alongside them.
This fear prompted a widespread tactic. Workers would take off their wooden shoes and throw them into the large gears of the machines, thereby disabling their mechanical rivals.
These French wooden shoes were called sabots, and this tactic of using shoes to disrupt the usual working of things therefore came to be called “sabotage.”
President George W. Bush faced a similar kind of sabotage during a Sunday press conference in Baghdad.
Mr. Bush intended to win more hearts and minds in Iraq during his final visit there. Instead he was disrupted and upstaged by 29-year-old television journalist Muntader al-Zaidi throwing his shoes from 12 feet away at the head of America's commander in chief and prompting our lame duck president to, well, duck.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki denounced this publicity stunt as a “shameful, savage act” and demanded that Zaidi's employer apologize for it.
Mr. al-Maliki needn't hold his breath. As he knows, Zaidi is a reporter for Al Baghdadia, a Cairo-based satellite television network notorious for its anti-American slant. Zaidi routinely signed off his reports as being from “occupied Baghdad” and did coverage that depicted the United States as the occupier.
Mr. Bush prevented his own security detail from seizing his attacker. Zaidi was instead taken forcefully by Maliki's security agents to a nearby room where, as The New York Times reported disapprovingly, he was “beaten” and his “cries could be heard.”
Zaidi could, in theory, face seven years in prison if convicted of violently attacking a visiting head of state. But in practice this seems unlikely because Zaidi is being hailed as a hero in many parts of the Arab Middle East.
Mobs in Iraq reportedly have marched in the streets, many carrying shoes atop poles. A daughter of Libya's strongman dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi awarded Zaidi a medal of courage. Syrian state television opened its telephone lines to callers who praised the assault aimed at President Bush.
A wealthy Saudi reportedly has offered $10 million for one of the shoes thrown, neither of which struck President Bush.
And Bush-hating leftists in the American media who have thrown verbal shoes and brickbats at the president for eight years seemed bemused and thrilled by Zaidi's stunt.
On his MSNBC show “Hardball” on Monday, Chris Matthews took a brief break from his stealth campaign to win the 2010 Democratic nomination for Senate in Pennsylvania to replay footage of the shoes being thrown at Mr. Bush over, and over, and over, and over again.
MSNBC's use of this video in a replay loop seemed more like a Michael Moore mockumentary than a genuine news show . . . but, hey, no thoughtful person regards MSNBC as a legitimate news network.
MSNBC is entering its third year as a free 24/7 partisan political ad, a multimillion-dollar-a-year campaign contribution by network owner General Electric to the Democratic Party and President-elect Barack Obama.
To most Americans, throwing shoes probably seems to be a silly thing to do, a gesture that evokes Nikita Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the podium at the United Nations long ago or fictional nitwit spy Maxwell Smart using his shoe telephone for comic effect.
Such images led many Americans to see weirdness in the December 2001 arrest of Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber,” after he tried to bring down American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami.
But in fact, as Time magazine reported, the shoe bomb Reid wore — but was prevented from detonating — was quite sophisticated and a favorite weapon of European al-Qaida terrorists.
In our culture shoes are status symbols. They are viewed so positively that it used to be customary to tie old shoes to the car newlyweds rode off to the honeymoon after their wedding. In Europe a shoe used to be built into the walls of houses to ward off evil spirits. In Tudor England guests threw shoes at a just-married couple and their carriage, with every hit bringing good luck. We keep and even bronze our babies' shoes.
In Arab Muslim culture, by contrast, it can be a serious insult merely to expose the sole of a shoe to another person sitting opposite from you.
“The shoe is considered dirty because it is on the ground and associated with the foot, the lowest part of the body,” wrote Caroline Gammell in Monday's London Telegraph. “Hitting someone with a shoe shows that the victim is regarded as even lower. When Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled in Baghdad in April 2003, Iraqis swarmed around it, striking it with their shoes.” (Gammell and many Iraqis seem to have forgotten that both Hussein's statue and his brutal dictatorship were toppled by courageous American troops acting on orders from President George W. Bush.)
Shoes are so ritually unclean in Islamic culture that they must be removed before a Muslim enters a mosque or prays.
After the first Gulf War, the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad installed a floor mosaic of the face of President George Herbert Walker Bush so that anyone entering its lobby would step symbolically on the first President Bush's face. In 2003 America soldiers destroyed this mosaic and replaced it, reported Gammell, with an image of Saddam Hussein.
And to add insult to potential injury, as he hurled his shoes at President Bush Mr. Zaidi shouted in Arabic: “This is a gift from the Iraqis. This is a farewell kiss, you dog!”
The Prophet Muhammad regarded dogs as unclean animals, thereby making what we call man's best friend defiled in the view of Muslims.
A colleague at Zaidi's television network told The New York Times that the reporter had been planning some sort of protest against Mr. Bush for nearly a year. The attack seemed carefully designed to deliver the largest cultural insult possible, and thereby to create maximum cultural impact, in the Muslim world.
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