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the diary thing 
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09.17.01
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 war
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MY PARENTS HAD A WARTIME WEDDING. I've always wondered, idly, what it must have been like for them, making a commitment to each other in the midst of a global catastrophe. Now, I guess, I'm going to find out.

At the same time, life goes on as before, at least as far as the banal, the day-to-day. Every siren, every low-flying plane, makes us tense, look up, then shake our heads at our skittishness, a small squirming worm of rueful anxiety turning in our stomach, like some newly-grown organ, evolved to cope with the change in our lives.

I spent three days barely tending to my life, poring over three newspapers, flipping incessantly between news programs, desperately grasping for something that would make sense of it all and, shamefully, something that would help me make a connection with the loss, something that would drag my experience of the tragedy from abstraction to reality.

Finally, one of the papers ran a page of photos -- victims on the planes, in the towers, at the Pentagon. Snapshots, headshots, Sears-portrait-studio portraits. Posed smiles and offhand grins; big, toothy party smiles and beaming summer vacation smiles. Four-by-six glossy reprints pulled from one-hour-photo envelopes, slipped out of frames, scanned and wired and colour-separated and pressed into newsprint. 

Just people. All dead. 

MY BROTHER-IN-LAW, A FIRE CAPTAIN, is devastated. He knew, as he watched both towers collapse, that there would be firemen in there, making their way up the stairs, burdened with respirators and axes and first-aid kits, fighting the frantic exodus down. He knew exactly how they died. He could imagine himself, his crew, anyone he works with, among them. It wasn't a leap he had to make, with any aid or effort.

K. has relatives working for the FBI, at the Pentagon. Her cousin, Barb, was looking forward to the wedding, to seeing K. again after more than a decade. Her husband has been assigned to the morgue at the Pentagon. He's FBI; right now, it's the FBI's war. Barb sent K. a said e-mail regretting that she won't be able to make it, now. Three young boys and husband who's away most of every day; at home, he's haunted, muted by the effort to keep what he's seeing quietly inside, to segregate it from his life.

In the meantime, I'm struggling to make the connection. Pitiful irony.

MINUTES AFTER THE ATTACK, a Sikh businessman runs from the towers up the West Side Highway to escape the scene. He's being chased by three young men screaming threats. He escapes to a subway, where he slips his turban into his briefcase and struggles through the rest of his day in his bare head and ponytail, aware of the shame of being forced to abandon a precept of his faith. 

A story I read in the New York Times that may prove to be apocryphal. Not so apocryphal is the Sikh gas station owner in the Southwest who was shot and killed. I'm sure there are hundreds of stories by now. Never mind that a Sikh is not a Muslim; action is being called for, and in times of action, the ignorant can strike first, unburdened by the need for proof, for justification, for justice.

I have a lot of time for Islam. The Koran, well translated, is as poetic a piece of theology as we have. I can understand the appeal of Islam, even in its more conservative forms, though admittedly my interest has always strayed to its mystical fringe, to Sufism, and to cosmopolitan writers like Naguib Mahfouz. I adore the sinuous melodies, the pentatonic-minor rigorousness of its music; I have an inherent sympathy for the fatalism of its culture, for the striving for dignity, for its demand for hospitality to strangers. I can't forget that, through the dark ages, Islam kept alive much of the classical wisdom and texts we now consider cornerstones of "Western" civilization. I have always thought that the west didn't end at the Bosphorus, but stretched as far as the deserts of Babylon and Mesopatamia. 

A war against terrorism is a tall order, whose success remains to be seen; a war against Islam is, in some very basic way, a war against some part of ourselves.

AM I WRONG IN ASSUMING THAT IT'S THE CIA'S JOB to anticipate and prevent an assault on its own country? Is it already heresy to point out that the CIA was at the forefront of the dirty wars and black ops that, brick by brick, build the timeline of history that led to over 5000 innocent people dying in the most spectacular incident of terrorism ever? Doesn't it seem ironic that the CIA -- probably the most incompetent multi-billion dollar intelligence service in existence -- is being unleashed to act in the offensive by acts of government? 

Once upon a time, it was fashionable in certain circles to compare the CIA to the Jesuits. Like the Jesuits, the CIA was not only the home of brilliant, ambitious misfits from business, government, and the military, but also the chaff of the establishment; the dim and thwarted younger sons of good families, victims of primogeniture, clubable flotsam in need of a niche. These are the men who gave us the Bay of Pigs, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Allende, Stroessner, Shah Pahlevi, poisoned cigars and unmarked graves full of priests and nuns. Among the last vestiges of their policy was the training and thinly covert "aid" to the mujahadeen in Afghanistan. Among their contributions to the vocabulary of geopolitics is the word "blowback".

These stray sparks of the Ivy League have been replaced in the last generation by a new generation of technocrats, some of whom profess shame at the megalomania and frequent ineptness of their predecessors. They have sought to distance themselves from their world -- a world that might have been imagined at different times by either Graham Greene or Ian Fleming, then tossed in the trash bin for being either implausible or laughable -- by building "eyes in the sky", by dismantling networks of distasteful contacts and moles with unreliable motivations in favour of cutting edge technology, assuming that their enemies were in thrall, or aspiring, to the same technology.

I'm sure it won't be known for months, maybe years, but right now the U.S. is relying on every scrap of intelligence they can get from Mossad, from the British and Germans, from the Turks, Indians and Pakistanis. Dick Cheney mused on some weekend chat show that the CIA might have to get in bed again with "some unsavoury people". I'm amazed that he'd think of doing anything right now but sending the CIA to bed without their dinner.


 
"It is always easy to begin a war, but very difficult to stop one, since its beginning and end are not under the control of the same man. Anyone, even a coward, can commence a war, but it can be brought to an end only with the consent of the victors."
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- Sallust (Gaius Sallistius Crispus, 86-34 B.C.)
Jugurtha

 
I don't have anything coherent to say right now -- just random thoughts, fragments of observations.

THE MOST DISAPPOINTING PART of the past week has been the level of rhetoric, from the nitwit hawks on Fox News, to the inappropriate chatter of most news anchors, to the awkward sentence fragments uttered by the President. No one, it seems, is capable of an articulate summary of their feelings or those of the people, of a truly noble statement of resolve, of a lyrical yet stirring call to grim, sensible, necessary action. I can understand that the victims, the spectators, the "man on the street" might feel a beggar for words, but the desolate, shopworn, ill-considered, gramatically-challenged tone has been dispiriting.

The greatest failure of metaphor seems to be a desperate, hopeful reliance on the imagery and popular history of the Second World War, from the incessant Pearl Harbor references to the crusade rhetoric to the attempt to cast the coming conflict, just moments old, as a "just war". If it was once said of the tragically inept generals of the First World War the they were "fighting the last war", then it seems that we're stricken by an urge to imagine ourselves fighting the last war we can remember with unmixed pride.

The worst of it is the will to turn this into a world war. If this becomes a world war, then the sentiment that the events of September 11th, 2001 "changed everything" is undeniably true. A world war, beginning from this point, would tear down the pillars of our society and leave little in its place. The concept of "globalization" so carelessly thrown around for a decade or more, was probably the first casualty. Even less abstract, we might finally have some reason to plan for a world without cheap, plentiful oil.

The first mistake is imagining that the enemy is anything like any previous enemy. It's fine to talk about "a military strike", but the fact is an enemy that lacks an air force, that basically had to steal a few planes from ours.

It's impossible for a state to declare war on anything but another state and hope to win -- the "war on drugs" is proof of that. Pathetically, the need for a concrete enemy will probably fall to Afghanistan, as unworthy an adversary as the world's most powerful nation and a couple of dozen of its allies could possibly pick. I'm sure every effort is being made to establish a connection with Iraq: an enemy you can really get behind; more unfinished business, a worthy enemy, despicable and contemptuous.

By declaring war on Usama bin Laden, by implicating the Taleban in that war, by expanding the conflict to include "terrorism everywhere", we might be setting in motion a chain of events that will give bin Laden exactly what he wants: jihad. The Taleban is afraid; the governments of Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Libya are doubtless afraid; the expression on Yasser Arafat's face on Tuesday was nothing less than sheer terror. 

But the rulers of Saudi Arabia are also afraid, since they know, even if it seems to have been forgotten, that bin Laden is one of them, a son of privilege turned enemy, whose primary goal is the overthrow of their regime, the expulsion of American influence in the Arabian peninsula, and the destruction of Israel. I'd mention that Israel is afraid, but it's safe to say that Israel has always been afraid.

It might be comforting to imagine the next few months as a time of resolve, to imagine the next few years through the -- mostly second-hand -- memories of conscription, bereavement, hardship, shortages, rationing, struggle and, finally, the ecstatic moment of victory, the complete subjugation of the enemy. It's the future as nostalgia, and it's deadly.

THE AFGHANI GOVERNMENT HAS VOWED retribution against the U.S. and its allies if it is attacked. It's a sad, desparate kind of threat. If the U.S. attacks through Pakistan, they'll be forced to turn on their main ally, cutting off their primary source of economic support. In any case, it's hard to imagine what kind of retribution the Taleban will be capable of after they've been hit with the brunt of an assault by a U.S. military unrestrained by government infighting or negative public opinion.

Darkly, the armchair generals hint at how considerable the war on the ground will be in Afghanistan. "It was the Vietnam of the Soviet Union," they say with considerable borrowed authority. Indeed, but it was a war by proxy, and the U.S. armed the Afghan rebels, Taleban or otherwise. They won't have the same supplier again, and once they've run through their stockpile of Soviet cast-offs and U.S. surplus Stinger missile launchers, it'll be a war of snipers and booby traps, of mountain strongholds and fighting to the last man, dying with the name of God on their lips. Grim, gruesome stuff.

IF YOU'RE ANYWHERE FROM TWENTY TO SIXTY YEARS OLD, you've probably anticipated this, or something like this, at some point in your life. For me, it was fear of the bomb, of the cold war going hot, which subsided a decade ago into purloined nuclear or biological devices, traded in the same kind of market where drugs and refugees are the currency, set off in some subway, public building, or stadium. If you didn't have the energy to imagine it, Hollywood would do the job for you. I've always carried two passports, one for the country of my birth, one for the dystopia I always feared would come.

"You've talked about this since I met you," K. said this morning. I've written about it, too, most recently a few months ago, while regretting the release of Pearl Harbor:
 

"Considering the way G. Dubya Bush's administration seems bent on a foreign policy that alienates or aggravates most of its friends and enemies, we may be closer to living through another war than we think. At least the movies might get a bit more honest, in twenty years' time. The downside is the thought of thousands of recruits, even millions of conscripts, going into battle with Pearl Harbor in their heads."

If you're a pessimist, you live with one sure thing: It's terrible, truly terrible, when you're right.

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writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
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