DATE April 7, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Johanna McGeary discusses her article in Time magazine
about the Hamas organization
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The Israeli military assassinated the spiritual leader and founder of Hamas
last month, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. He was 66. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon described him as, quote, "the foremost leader of the Palestinian
terrorist murderers," unquote. Now during the Passover celebration, Israelis
are bracing for a retaliatory strike. Hamas, which was founded in 1987, is
known for its suicide bombings. Its military wing is very secretive.
My guest, Johanna McGeary, managed to interview several of the leaders of
Hamas. McGeary is the chief foreign correspondent for Time magazine. Her
story "Inside Hamas" was published in last week's edition of Time. I asked
McGeary to describe Sheikh Yassin's importance within Hamas.
Ms. JOHANNA McGEARY (Time Magazine): Before Sheikh Yassin, there really was no
Hamas. He had been a kind of longtime member of something called the Muslim
Brotherhood, an Egyptian-based group of essentially Islamic fundamentalists,
people who believe that Islam should be the law of the land in all Muslim
territory. But he was also a Palestinian, and gradually, he put together both
the Islamic fundamentalist notions that he had learned early on and
Palestinians' aspirations for a homeland and combined those things, if you
will, into one creed that sought to put Islam at the service of regaining
their lost homeland to the Palestinians.
GROSS: What has the reaction been inside the territories to his
Ms. McGEARY: It seemed to me that of all the things the Israelis could have
done that would be counterproductive, killing Yassin was one of them. He was
very much revered as a spiritual leader, not as a man who sat in some little
office plotting plans to kill Israelis. He was seen instead as a man of great
stature, a man of great humanity, a man who represented, if you will, the
Palestinians' impulses to have a homeland, and he was not seen as someone who
was directly a threat to Israel, at least in the Palestinians' eyes. So
killing him to them seemed, if you will, a kind of crazy act, one that was
designed to inflame Palestinian anger rather than do anything to curb the
violent behavior of Hamas, and I think that's pretty much been born out to be
true in the days since then.
GROSS: Do you think it's safe to say that there are a lot of revenge attacks
being planned now?
Ms. McGEARY: I'm sure that in every corner of Hamas' operations, there are
people sitting around thinking about that. Exactly what they'll do, when
they'll do it is anybody's guess. Attacking Israel has been part and parcel
of Hamas' entire existence since the organization was founded in 1987, but
certainly the death by assassination of their spiritual leader is one that
only inspires them to do worse, to do more, to do it on any occasion they can
GROSS: Well, the whole goal of Hamas is to push the Israelis out of territory
that used to be Palestine, isn't it?
Ms. McGEARY: That is correct. Hamas, in essence, doesn't have a goal that's
different for most Palestinians; that is it wants to have back what it calls
the territory that the Palestinians occupied before Israel ever came to be.
It does carry that to extremes in the sense that its formal creed calls for
throwing Israel out of all the land between the Jordan River and the
Mediterranean Sea, which would, of course, include present-day Israel. But,
in fact, over time, although that remains their official creed, most of Hamas'
leaders have come to understand that the best they will probably obtain will
be a restoration of the territories that the Palestinians occupied before the
1967 war. That is what we now call the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. And
while they never officially say that that would be the end of their struggle,
they do say that they would accept that kind of solution and leave it to
future generations, as they put it, to decide whether to continue the
struggle; that is, whether to try to displace Israel itself.
GROSS: Israel has slightly changed its policy toward Hamas. What are those
Ms. McGEARY: Well, in fact, Israel's policy towards Hamas, at least on the
Sharon government, has always been a pretty simple one: dismantle them,
exterminate them, get rid of them. That has always meant that they felt
perfectly free to attack anyone who was thought to be a militant, you know, a
gunman, a guy who did suicide bombings or somebody who developed explosive.
But lately, they have also decided to put on their target list for what they
call targeted killing the men who are the political leaders of Hamas. These
are men whose names are publicly known, who appear in public, who kind of
speak for the organization. They include Yassin and also three or four other
men whose names and faces are known. But they are now at the top of Israel's
list for targeted assassination. And the idea seems to be to try to wipe out
as many, if not all of them, as possible.
GROSS: How is the seeming increase in Israel's actions against Hamas
connected, if at all, to Sharon's stated intention to withdraw unilaterally
from the Gaza, to pull out the Israeli settlements from the Gaza without any
kind of, you know, treaty behind it?
Ms. McGEARY: Well, it certainly appears that there will be a step-up in
Israeli attempts to do what they call decapitation, to get rid of Palestinian
leaders they don't like. That certainly includes the leadership of Hamas, but
it also includes Yasser Arafat, and only this week, Sharon has made it quite
clear that Arafat is moving towards the top of his list of targets for
assassination. The Sharon government has long believed that if they could
decapitate, get rid of the leaders of all of these groups that they don't
like, then somehow both rebellion would end in the occupied territories and
the Palestinians would be willing to accept whatever kind of deal Israel
wanted to give them. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, of course,
they're not very willing to do that, and they regard Sharon's targeting of
leaders as very much a statement that he doesn't want to negotiate, that he
wants to get rid of anybody who might be capable of negotiating with him, and
that only makes them more and more unwilling to negotiate, because they don't
see themselves as willing to negotiate from a position of weakness.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Johanna McGeary, and she's chief
foreign correspondent for Time magazine. Last week, she wrote a piece called
Now you've interviewed a couple of people--several people who have worked
within Hamas in relatively high leadership positions. What are some of the
explanations you've been given from people inside Hamas to--from their point
of view, justifying suicide attacks and other terrorist actions?
Ms. McGEARY: For the Palestinians, it all seems quite logical, and I think
you kind of have to live their life to understand why that's true. In the
Gaza Strip in particular, people are very much locked away from the rest of
the world. There is no way out of the Gaza Strip for Palestinians except
through one checkpoint that is rigorously controlled by the Israelis. So you
have one and a half million Palestinians in this very small piece of territory
who experience every day the effects of an occupation that gets ever more
relentless and ever more difficult. There are soldiers everywhere. Houses
are demolished every day.
From the Palestinian point of view, the Israelis are oppressive, suppressive,
violent and have weapons that are far greater than anything the Palestinians
themselves have. The Israelis have tanks. They have F-16 airplanes. They
have Apache helicopter gunships. They have armor. They have all the weapons
of a modern military, and all the Palestinians have are AK-47s that they
smuggle in, explosives that they make themselves and people who are willing to
blow themselves up. They also believe that suicide bombing is a very potent
weapon. It sends a huge message not just to the Israelis, but to Palestinians
and to everyone in the world that they are willing to die themselves for their
cause. And they see their suicide bombing very much in that context, as
opposed to the way in which the outside world sees it, which is, `Oh, these
horrible attacks on civilians who are innocently going about their lives in
Israel, they don't deserve to die.' But from the Palestinian point of view,
that's what happens to Palestinians every day under the weapons and the force
of the Israeli army.
GROSS: Listening to you talk about Hamas--and obviously, as a reporter,
you're trying to convey their point of view--I think it would be easy for
somebody to walk away and say, `Well, she's really sympathetic to Hamas and
Ms. McGEARY: I'm not talking about my personal opinion. I'm trying to convey
what Hamas people said to me, how they feel. And it's important that that
distinction should be made.
GROSS: Let's just flip perspectives for a moment. When you're in Israel
covering Israel, how does the threat of Hamas attacks seem on Israeli land?
Ms. McGEARY: If you're in Israel and you're looking at Hamas, you don't see
these people as resisters to an occupation. You see them essentially as
terrorists, as people who are willing to walk into your country and attack you
in a restaurant where you're eating lunch, on a bus when you're trying to go
to work. That doesn't feel like a war. That feels like something unfair.
And certainly it is true that for all that the Western world agrees with the
principle that the Palestinians deserve a homeland, a nation of their own,
there's no sympathy at all outside the occupied territories for the methods
that Hamas uses. I mean, there is something morally repugnant to most
Westerners, certainly to non-Muslims, about the use of suicide bombers, and
there's also something I think disturbingly absolutist about the objectives
that people in Hamas particularly declare; that is, they want to wipe out
Israel. I mean, that's simply considered an unacceptable outcome. And I
think Hamas has both tainted the Palestinians' cause overall by its use of
suicide bombings, and it's certainly driven away a lot of political support
by the way it talks. It can often sound anti-Semitic because it talks about
the Zionists who have come and taken over our land, and that kind of thing is
repugnant to the outside world.
And I think that Hamas often makes a great mistake in terms of both its
rhetoric and some of its actions because they're so blatantly
counterproductive. And the outside world doesn't accept this as a fair--let's
say as a fair way to fight the battle. And that has definitely hurt it, not
just Hamas as an organization but hurt the entire Palestinian cause.
GROSS: My guest is Johanna McGeary, chief foreign correspondent for Time
magazine. Her article "Inside Hamas" was published in last week's edition.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Johanna McGeary is my guest. She's chief foreign correspondent for
Time magazine. Last week, she wrote a long story called "Inside Hamas."
One of the people that you interviewed in Hamas gave you the name of
Mohammed(ph). We'll get to what his real name was in a couple of minutes, but
how did you get to meet him?
Ms. McGEARY: Like every reporter who goes to Hamas, I work with a translator.
In my case, he's a man who is a Palestinian journalist who lived in Gaza, and
through him, I made the contacts in Hamas with people whom I interviewed for
GROSS: And how were you taken to see him?
Ms. McGEARY: Meeting Mohammed, who is a--or was, since he is now dead--a
militant gunman for Hamas, was one of those experiences that always makes you
wonder, first of all, why people are willing to talk to journalists at all
when they're in such a precarious situation. But this man decided that he was
willing to talk to me, and so he arranged a meeting. The first meeting I had
with him took place out in the open. It was a kind of hide in plain sight
thing, in which he said that since he knows my translator that if we would be
at a certain street corner during the demonstrations that Hamas always holds
after Friday prayers in Gaza City, that he would come and find us, and we
would talk as we walked down the street, essentially amid a huge crowd of
Hamas people. And in that way, he would feel protected in case the Israelis
were looking for him, as he is a fugitive, or even in case it turned out that
I was somebody who was not who I claimed to be.
GROSS: And is that what you did?
Ms. McGEARY: That is exactly what we did, and we had an interview walking.
I'm trying to write as we walk down the street. He then agreed to talk to me
again in a somewhat more private location. It is true that already, by this
point--this was in the middle of last summer--Hamas activists were not
supposed to ride in cars. They did not use their cell phones. They were
trying to prevent themselves from being picked up by Israeli electronic
So he agreed to meet me a second time on a beach in Gaza. He liked to go
swimming. It was his one kind of relief from his militant activities, and so
he told me to come to the beach at a certain time, and we would meet there,
and we did. He kind of emerged out of the sea and came to meet us. He had
some bodyguards with him. He explained that we would get inside our car, my
car, not his car, and that we should roll up the windows and turn on the air
conditioning, so that when we talked, the windows would become opaque and
nobody could look in, and that's where we conducted our longest interview.
GROSS: Do it in your car so that no one would blow the car up, because that
would protect you.
Ms. McGEARY: Exactly. He was, as it turned out, killed on the same beach
about two months later, not very far from where I had met him, doing the same
thing. He had gone for a swim, and he was back in his car, and the Israelis
tracked him electronically, I think by a walkie-talkie, and sent missiles into
his car and killed him.
GROSS: So you don't think you inadvertently helped lead Israeli authorities
Ms. McGEARY: I do not believe so. Certainly, it was two months later. It's
a worry that you always have when you meet people like this. I mean, you
worry both ways. Are they going to be a danger to me? Am I going to be a
danger to them? And in this case, I trusted both his instincts for survival
and my translator's knowledge of the area to assume that I was not putting him
in direct danger, but the Israelis had been tracking him for many months. He
was well-known to them for quite a long time.
GROSS: So what are some of the most interesting things he told you about
himself or Hamas?
Ms. McGEARY: Well, certainly one of the things that you realize about
militants who work for Hamas is, of course, how dedicated they are. I mean,
they truly believe that what they're doing will somehow achieve their goals.
I mean, to me, one of the most puzzling parts of the Hamas creed is how their
militant actions are going to gain them a Palestinian state. To them, the
logic seems to be self-evident; that is they are fighting to end the
occupation, and one day, they will succeed. And no matter how often you ask
them if some of their actions, particularly suicide bombings, aren't, in fact,
counterproductive, I mean, they simply deny it. They simply say, `No, that's
not true, and we're resisting, and this is all about resistance, and by
resisting, we will one day throw off the occupation.'
GROSS: Did you ask him how he feels about being part of a group that is
asking, that is encouraging young men and women to blow themselves up, to use
themselves as human bombs?
Ms. McGEARY: Of course, this is one of the first questions that Westerners
always ask, but for Palestinians, at least those who are Muslim, it's not
puzzling at all. I mean, whether the martyrdom comes as a suicide bomber or
because you've been shot by Israeli guns or, you know, fought in a war, to
them, it's all one in the same thing. Muslims are enjoined by their religion,
they believe, to fight for their beliefs and to fight for their land, and if
they die in that cause, however they die, whether it's by blowing themselves
up or being shot by a tank, that seems like the same thing to them and is a
form of martyrdom and is one of the highest honors in Islamic theology, so
they don't see it as strange at all.
GROSS: Of course, this form of martyrdom, being a suicide bomber, is very
controversial among Muslims. I mean, many Muslims would not agree that that
form of martyrdom is encouraged in the Koran. In fact, many Muslim scholars
say suicide of any sort is considered a bad thing.
Ms. McGEARY: I agree. I'm not an Islamic scholar, so it's not an issue about
which I had strong theological debates with anybody, but to their mind and
certainly according to the preachings of the imams that Hamas people listen
to, this is perfectly acceptable. So whether or not it is in Islam overall is
something that they'll have to settle for themselves, but at least as far as
the adherence of Hamas goes, they believe that this is sanctioned by their
religion and it's part and parcel of being a good Muslim.
GROSS: What was he proudest of of all the things he had done for Hamas?
Ms. McGEARY: Well, you know, it's interesting to listen to somebody take
great pride in essentially being a guerrilla soldier, if you will. I mean,
most of what Hamas does is classic guerrilla warfare. It's hit-and-run raids.
It's going to shoot up Israelis checkpoints. It's lobbing grenades and
rockets at settlements. It's doing a lot of the classic kinds of things that
guerrillas in all of these types of wars have done. But Mohammed did say that
one of his proudest achievements was a raid that he had planned on an Israeli
settlement inside Gaza, which had required him and his men essentially to pose
as Orthodox Jews. And, of course, the irony is that Hamas men and Orthodox
Jews look exactly alike. They're bearded, they're dark, they can wear somber
clothes. And so it's quite easy for Hamas militants to look like a lot of the
Jews who inhabit the settlements in places like Gaza. And he had planned a
raid in which he did that and then killed some settlers, and he thought that
it had been a good act on the part of his unit.
GROSS: Johanna McGeary is Time magazine's chief foreign correspondent. Her
article "Inside Hamas" was published in last week's edition. She'll be back
in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music; credits)
GROSS: Coming up, more on Hamas with journalist Johanna McGeary. Also, jazz
critic Kevin Whitehead listens to a new box set of Dave Brubek's "Time Out"
sessions. And FRESH AIR critic at large, John Powers, considers the impact of
"The Passion of the Christ" on the media.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Johanna McGeary, Time
magazine's chief foreign correspondent. Her story "Inside Hamas" was
published in last week's edition. She has interviewed several leaders of the
group, including a leader of the military wing who used the name Mohammed when
he spoke with her.
Now the person who told you his name was Mohammed was killed a couple of
months after you spoke with him by the Israeli military. What are some of the
things you learned about him after his death?
Ms. McGEARY: Well, it turned out that he was very high-ranking member of
Hamas, much more important than I had thought. His actual name was Ahmed
Ishtawi. And he was a senior commander in Hamas not only for Gaza, where he
operated, but he was also a liaison to the Hamas cells in the West Bank. And
only the very highest-ranking members of the Hamas militant wing know who is
in more than one cell. They're a very secretive organization; they operate in
little, independent cells. But Ishtawi was quite an important commander. And
he had formed many groups. The particular unit he had first started was a
very famous one. He did a lot of organizing. He had been a student leader in
a university in Gaza, and so he knew a lot of young people. He also seemed to
have been responsible for bringing in weapons into Gaza, which were mostly
smuggled, I think, probably from Egypt, some by sea. And he collected a lot
of money, distributed it to other cells, so they could carry out their
operations. He even, I was told, designed the Hamas logo. So he was quite a
high-ranking figure and much revered in the organization. He was considered a
great hero by them when he died.
GROSS: And he was only 24 when he died.
Ms. McGEARY: He was only 24.
GROSS: In the Gaza after his death, were you there to see how he was honored?
Ms. McGEARY: No. In fact, I was in Gaza to talk again to the top leaders of
Hamas in order, you know, to find out whether their political philosophy had
changed in any way; whether, before we printed this story, there was any
movement essentially on the political front. But that's also when I found out
who Mohammed, whom I'd interviewed, was. And it gave me a chance to go back
and talk to his family, and that's where I learned all of these details about
him, where I was shown the Hamas posters. Hamas always paints portraits of
its dead militants and plasters posters of them all over as sort of acts of
veneration, and so there he was. And that's how I found out a lot more about
him than I had even known when I interviewed him himself. Although he was
quite candid about a lot of what he did, he never indicated what his rank was
or what his connections were to other people in Hamas. He always protected
GROSS: Now you interviewed somebody named Salama Hamad. Am I saying his name
Ms. McGEARY: Yes, you are.
GROSS: Who spent 15 years in Hamas, 12 years in Al Qassam. And one of the
things he does is make rockets, or one of the things--yeah, I guess he's still
alive, isn't he?
Ms. McGEARY: Yes, he is.
GROSS: Now what are some of the things he shared with you about his method of
Ms. McGEARY: Salama Hamad was considerably older than Mohammed and has been
in the organization longer, but I would say he's a bit more of a foot soldier.
He, like many, kind of graduated up through the ranks. You start usually
doing hit-and-run raids using rifles. And then, depending on your skills, you
might take on different activities for Hamas. Salama Hamad is a man who
specializes in making explosives, and he runs some of the little clandestine
factories that make the home-made bombs and rockets that Hamas uses primarily
against the settlements inside Gaza or, in the case of the West Bank, against
settlers there or against Israeli Defense Force units who are in the occupied
GROSS: And some of the equipment that he was working with was booby-trapped.
What was the story?
Ms. McGEARY: When I first met Salama, I met him at the mourning for another
Hamas fighter who had died. One of the few places nowadays that fugitive
Hamas people feel safe is inside these mourning tents. When a martyr, when a
Hamas person dies, they set up tents. And there are three days of mourning,
where friends and relatives and acquaintances and organizational cronies come
to give their condolences to the family. This a place where Hamas militants
feel safe enough to come out in the open, and that is where I met Salama, who
was perfectly willing to talk about himself.
That is his real name. He did not feel constrained to use a pseudonym
because, as he said to me, `Israel already knows all about me.' And they
certainly seem to have because he told me a story about how in his search for
more sophisticated weapons, he bought what he thought was a kind of flying
drone aircraft, a small, pilotless aircraft that could fire rockets. The
Hamas people have fairly primitive rockets that they make themselves, but they
don't go very far. So Salama was looking for something that would be a little
more long range. And when this item was delivered to him, it was delivered in
two parts. And he looked at the first part and, you know, looked at the
pieces, and it seemed OK. And then when he went to, I guess, unwrap or deal
with the second part, it blew up. It had been booby-trapped, and the entire
item had been sold to him by someone who was collaborating with the Israelis.
He was not killed, but he was seriously injured and lost a great deal of his
hearing, so that today he wears a hearing aid. And that's what led me to ask
him what had happened because I saw this wire going into his ear. And I
thought, `Hmm, is he wearing some kind of microphone, some kind of earpiece?'
But, no, it was a hearing aid, which he needed after this particular incident.
GROSS: Johanna McGeary is my guest. She's chief foreign correspondent for
Time magazine. And her article "Inside Hamas" was published last week in
How does Hamas win the loyalty of so many Palestinians? What are some of
their techniques for getting people on their side emotionally, politically,
Ms. McGEARY: Hamas really exists in two parts. One part, of course, is the
militant part, and it is the martyrs, those who die for the cause, who
generate a certain amount of support for Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, I
think, even more than in the West Bank. This is something that wins a lot of
sympathy, even among people who don't necessarily share the ultimate beliefs
of Hamas and who wouldn't ever consider being a suicide bomber or even an
gunman themselves. They do appreciate the sense that some among them are
willing to do these things to make sure that the Palestinian cause is not
forgotten. That's one half, I think, of how Hamas acquires the power that it
has among Palestinians.
The other half, which is the half I think most people outside of the occupied
territories have no idea about, is that Hamas is a huge benevolent
organization. It does an enormous amount of social work. It has
cradle-to-the-grave programs that go from educating kindergarten kids to
providing medical care to giving handouts to needy people. And it is very
widespread. It is very admired for these charitable works. It is considered
the only honest, non-corrupt organization among the Palestinians. And the
more that Palestinians see that the authority run by Yasser Arafat as corrupt,
as run by cronies of Arafat, as dishonest, the more Hamas appears clean and
honorable in contrast. And that has also brought them a huge following among
Every survey that's done currently among Palestinians in Gaza and the West
Bank show that a minimum of 33 percent of the population say that they are
Hamas. And that's a huge number of people. Most of them would never pick up
a gun, would never strap on an explosive belt. But they admire the
organization for its charitable works, for its incorruptibility and for its
GROSS: You briefly spoke with the person who is the new leader of Hamas, who
was the number two to the sheikh who was assassinated in March by the Israeli
military. What were your impressions of him, and what is he known for within
Ms. McGEARY: I actually had two interviews with Abdel-Aziz Rantissi, one
last summer and then one in February. And he has been, for quite a long time,
the leading political leader, if you will. Sheikh Yassin kind of stood above
everyone. He was a spiritual man. He did not direct things in strictly
political terms, but he kind of mediated over the entire organization. He
settled disputes among leaders. He was the last word, the ultimate authority.
Now that he is gone, his place is really filled by a different kind of person.
Abdel-Aziz Rantissi is a medical doctor. He has been an open political leader
of Hamas for many years. But he was one of three or four who kind of operated
together, if you will, under the level of Yassin. He was, however, I think,
considered to be the number two. He's a very tough man. He, I think, is
quite hard-nosed about Hamas, about its creed. I would say he's probably less
flexible than some others. The most flexible, I think, of the known Hamas
political leaders, a man named Ishmael Abu Shanab, was assassinated by the
Israelis in August, so his moderating voice is gone. Rantissi himself was
recovering from an Israeli assault when I met him in June. All of these men
are very much in the Israelis' gun sights.
So it's a little hard to know exactly how well they're going to manage under
the current circumstances. But Rantissi is tough. He's strong. He
officially has the kind of title of number one, but he will have to listen to
a lot of other people, not just those who are with him in Gaza but also the
two leaders of Hamas who live outside of the occupied territories in Damascus.
And they represent another voice, mostly from the Palestinians who are still
exiled even from the occupied territories. And they have a strong influence
on what Hamas thinks, particularly in terms of how much territories should be
returned since most of them come from land that is now inside Israel. So I
think what you're going to see is probably a toughening up of the line. It's
going to be a little bit harder for Hamas to finesse its strict, `We must have
back all of the land of ancient Palestine,' kind of line under these guys.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. McGEARY: You're welcome.
GROSS: And I wish you safe travels in your work. Thank you.
Ms. McGEARY: Thank you.
GROSS: Johanna McGeary is Time magazine's chief foreign correspondent. Her
article "Inside Hamas" was published in last week's edition.
Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new box set collecting Dave Brubeck's
"Time Out" sessions. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Analysis: Dave Brubeck's "Time Out" recordings released in a box
TERRY GROSS, host:
In 1959, Dave Brubeck made the album "Time Out" featuring songs with odd time
signatures like 4/5 and 9/8. The album slowly became a hit, and Brubeck
recorded four sequels over the next six years. Now they're all on a box set.
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.
(Soundbite of "Take Five")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:
Saxophonist Paul Desmond's "Take Five": a hit single in 1961, a dance-class
staple ever since and a music symbol of Kennedy-era optimism. Back then jazz
folk believed in progress attained through ever-greater complexity, a process
by which swing music evolved into abstract bebop. In jazz and most popular
music the basic unit of rhythm is four beats, a pattern so ingrained as to be
unconscious. Brubeck reasoned that complex groupings of five or nine beats
per bar would stimulate intricate rhythms akin to African drum choirs. At
first, though, it just sounded stiff, like the musicians were counting to five
over and over. On "Take Five," Brubeck kept the piano vamp going to spell out
the beats and keep everyone on track.
(Soundbite of "Take Five")
WHITEHEAD: Joe Morello on drums. In truth, thinking in five- or 11-beat
units isn't so difficult because they subdivide into simpler sums of two and
three beats. Count out that five as one, two, three; one, two; one, two,
three; one, two, and the pattern becomes easier to play and follow. Brubeck
made is sound like rocket science, describing the album "Time Out" as `the
result of weeks of concentration on a particular problem.'
By contrast, also in 1959, drummer Max Roach recorded a more natural-sounding
but lesser-known, five-four piece. "As Long As You're Living" is by Tommy
Turrentine and Julian Priester.
(Soundbite of "As Long As You're Living")
WHITEHEAD: Max Roach in five-four time. It's tempting to say Brubeck got
credit for making sound hard what Roach got no credit for making sound too
easy. But then the deck was stacked to begin with. Brubeck recorded for a
much bigger label with a crack publicity team, and his quartet did get better
at tackling odd time signatures on four sequels to the original LP. "Take
Five" is the tune everyone remembers, but the band went on to record far
smoother pieces in five-four, like 1961's "Far More Blue" from "Time Further
(Soundbite of "Far More Blue")
WHITEHEAD: One, two, three; one, two. That's Eugene Wright on bass. Another
superior five-beat piece was "Unisphere" from the 1963 album "Time Changes."
(Soundbite of "Unisphere")
WHITEHEAD: But you know how it is with sequels. You can only milk an idea so
long before you start to parody yourself. On the last LP in the series,
1965's "Time In," time was running out.
(Soundbite of "Time In")
WHITEHEAD: Dave Brubeck's five "Time" albums for Columbia are collected in a
new box called "For All Time." Two discs are already available separately,
and the others will be pretty soon. There is a lot of sunny and likeable
music here, but taken as a whole, the five discs are uneven. Brubeck sneaks
in a lot of tunes in gold ol' four-four and waltz-time alongside the
slide-rule stuff, but he definitely popularized odd meters. And five-four
themes to "Mission Impossible" and "Mannix" soon confirmed his broad
influence. When TV cribs your ideas and even The Beatles' "All My Loving"
takes off from one of your piano solos, your place in pop culture is secure.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for the Chicago Times, The Absolute Sound and
Down Beat. He reviewed the new Dave Brubeck box set "For All Time" on the
Coming up, critic at large John Powers considers how the success of "The
Passion of the Christ" has affected the mass media's coverage of religion.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Commentary: Film "The Passion of the Christ" causes media to
face America's religiosity that it's long ignored
TERRY GROSS, host:
There's been no shortage of discussion surrounding Mel Gibson's film "The
Passion of the Christ." It's been nearly two months since the film opened,
time enough for our critic at large, John Powers, to reflect on how the mass
media cover religion and what effect Gibson's film has had on the culture.
George Orwell wrote that it takes a constant struggle just to see what's in
front of one's nose. This is certainly true of our media. They're so busy
turning out newspapers, magazines and daily programs that they give the
illusion of being on top of everything. Then something comes along that
reveals a blind spot. That's what happened when driver Dale Earnhardt was
killed during the 2001 Daytona 500. The spontaneous explosion of grief among
millions of NASCAR fans prompted the startled recognition that stock car
racing is America's second-biggest sport with a rich and potent mythology all
I mean no disrespect when I say that the same thing has happened with "The
Passion of the Christ." As its box office skyrocketed, over $330 million so
far, its blockbuster status has compelled our big papers, magazines and
networks to confront a bedrock fact of American life that they've largely
ignored. The United States is by far the most religious country in the
developed world, a nation in which 60 percent of its citizens believe the
Bible is historically accurate. We live in a country where "The Da Vinci
Code," Dan Brown's conspiracy thriller about the origins of Christianity, has
just become the best-selling adult novel of all time. And the apocalyptic
"Left Behind" series of novels has sold nearly 60 million copies, "Harry
Of course, were it not for Gibson's celebrity, religion would still be
struggling to make the front pages of the news shows. We normally get very
little coverage of religious life, except for stories about extremists.
That's because our mass media themselves are something of a modern-day
religion whose major doctrines are secularism, pluralism and materialism. By
its very nature this media culture resists strong expressions of any faith
that offers values claiming to transcend it. Our media gatekeepers feel much
more comfortable with softer, unofficial forms of religion. They prefer to
deal with it as a lifestyle accessory, like practicing yoga, or as the source
of the comforting, soft-core spirituality found in TV shows like "Joan of
Arcadia," one of four recent series in which young women have dealings with
Naturally "The Passion of the Christ" freaked the media out. None of the big
Hollywood studios would distribute the film, while many papers and magazines
went into a minor frenzy thumping Gibson and his movie months before they'd
even seen it, which, of course, only served to make the movie into a cultural
event. Horrified by the passions they feared it might unleash, they did
everything possible to inoculate viewers. CNN broadcast a special called "Who
Was Jesus?" Newsweek ran a cover story asking "Who Really Killed Jesus?" And
"Dateline" sent Stone Phillips to the Holy Land to investigate what really
happened to Jesus. I half expected CBS to launch a new series, "CSI:
Underlying all this was fear that the movie might spark anti-Semitic violence.
Mercifully, that hasn't happened, at least not in America. Although the film
is anti-Semitic, most Christians who see "The Passion of the Christ" treat it
as an occasion not for blame but for an affirmation of their own faith. They
have no use for Gibson's extreme Christianity, a Catholicism so, quote,
unquote, "traditional" that it even views John Paul II as a bogus pope.
Ironically, Gibson's Jesus movie has probably had a less-striking effect on
ordinary Christians than it's had on our media. Papers like The New York
Times that once scoffed at "The Passion of the Christ" now run front-page
articles on the "Left Behind" series. The cover of this week's Time magazine
is asking, `Why did Jesus have to die?' And most hilariously, Hollywood
itself has got religion. As the trade papers have reported, movies execs who
shrieked in horror at Gibson's film before it was released and would sooner
die than give him an Oscar for making it now are busily seeking out
religious-theme projects that will let them reel in all those Christian
Although America hasn't become demonstratively more devout in the last two
months, Christianity has demonstrated its clout in the time-honored American
way. It's made huge profits. Why, there's even a Web site called
sharethepassionofthechrist.com that will sell you a sterling silver "Passion"
nail pendant for only $50.
GROSS: John Powers is deputy editor and media columnist for LA Weekly.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.