The Voice of Outrage

Cutting through all the chatter regarding the symbollism of the shoe in Iraqi culture and the Arab world at large, Kal over at the Moor Next Door gets my vote for insight of the day:

Is there a culture in which throwing a shoe at someoneis not highly offensive? The consensus would seem to be that in mostcultures, throwing a shoe at someone at very least signals greathostility.

If this incident becomes an iconic one, and I have a suspicion it will, it will be in large part because of the way it took everyone, including the Secret Service, by surprise. As I found myself saying to some fellow expats yesterday, if someone had told you eight years ago that in 2008 people would be throwing shoes at the president of the United States, you’d have thought they were nuts.

To the extent that the shoe has a particular meaning in Iraqi culture, that’s a testament to the ways in which six years, thousands of lives and hundreds of billions dollars later, we still don’t understand the country we so cavalierly invaded.

But to the extent that the act, as Kal points out, was a universally understood and, significantly, non-lethal expression of anger, outrage and humiliation (how desperate to be heard someone must be when their only recourse is to remove their very shoes and use them as a weapon to register their outrage), it will register profoundly with all those around the world who have found their voices increasingly drowned out by the engines of the passing military convoy. The fact that it was Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki instinctivelyand coolly moving to protect President Bush will resonate, too,representing a role reversal in the flesh that belies the nature of thepolitical relationship (or perhaps clarifies it).

An unarmed man made the president of the United States flinch and duck, twice, and he did it with nothing more than the shoes off of his feet. The fact that the act resonates as much as it does — in Iraq, across the Arab world and I suspect beyond — says a great deal about the challenges America faces with regard to its image abroad.