AS B-1, B-2 AND B-52 BOMBERS make their way back from
their targets, military transport planes have apparently been dropping
food parcels to fleeing refugees. To avoid being hit with whatever Stinger
missiles or anti-aircraft guns the Taliban militia might still possess,
the aid is being dropped from considerable heights. I can only hope that
military engineers have found a way to make food impact-resistant. I'm
sure they'll be finding packages of rations in barren mountain passes years
It's a "Hearts and Minds" -- or at least "Mouths and Stomachs" -- campaign that has been given as much priority as accurate targeting intelligence. Today, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan stated that the attacks had no impact, and killed women and children. They may be right,
but I doubt if they're much believed, and in any case, the Taliban aren't
making public statements for our benefit, but for that part of the world
that believes that American "had it coming", or that the Mossad organized
the September 11th attacks, and that 4000 Jews didn't show up for work
at the World Trade Center that morning.
It's regrettable that this aid wasn't made available years
ago, when the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistand after the Soviet withdrawal
-- a mistake that most of the old State Department hands will acknowledge
today. It's obvious enough now that a Marshall Plan of sorts -- perhaps
it'll be called the Powell Plan, or the Rice Plan -- will be essential
when the Taliban is overthrown. In the desperate political vacuum that
follows, it might be nice to have the Army Corps of Engineers on the ground,
fixing roads and bridges, power stations and sewers, proving that America
is as happy to build mosques and schools in the Islamic world as the Bin
Laden construction company once was, and without any particular political
agenda that needs to be placated.
BUT THAT'S ALL IN THE VAGUE FUTURE, a place where, time
and time again, our intentions, good or bad, are rendered meaningless as
history rolls on, like a tragedy without a final act.
One thing's for sure -- the videotape that Usama bin Laden
released, carefully prepared in the event of attacks, is going to end up
as Exhibit #1 should he ever come to trial. (Frankly, I'm not banking on
it, but it would be precedent-setting, a Nuremberg to neatly bookend our
new "just war".)
Watching it yesterday, with the halting translation being
made on the spot for English news services, I was helpless in the face
of an urge to skewer the man, to run him through with a pike and let him
die squirming as gravity pulled him down the shaft. As quickly as this
image seized me, I felt immediate shame. As a Catholic, I oppose murder
of any sort. As a man, though, and the latest in a long line of intelligent
animals, I couldn't help myself: I was seeing a Threat; I was seeing the
Enemy, and I wanted him dead.
Once again, though, I'm sure he wasn't making it for me,
or for anyone like me, regardless of my reaction. It's hard to remember,
with thousands dead, that nothing being done by bin Laden, or Al-Qaeda,
or the Taliban, or anyone currently sitting in the "enemy" camp, was done
to make an impression on the West. With this videotape, as with everything
else he does, bin Laden is playing to the stands, and the stands are what
he calls "Our Islamic nation".
With language like "America has been filled with horror
from north to south and east to west", and "international infidels...who
went on a display of vanity with their men and horses", bin Laden has made
his objective clear enough: total uprising in the Muslim world against
the West. We might shake our heads at the arbitrariness of figures like
"80 years" of attacks on Islam, or the image of Bush's "men and horses",
but "we" generally don't speak Arabic, and a lot is being lost in the translation.
This is epic language, as vast and image-driven as Bush's talk of "evil"
and "smoking them out of their holes". It's meant not as coherent history
or articulate policy, but as a rallying cry, the rhetorical equivalent
of a parade down the boulevard with marching bands and tanks.
But he's given America a priceless gift: a real villain,
Ming the Merciless and Stalin between two slices of Hitler. Up till now,
we've had to be content with the mug shot of Mohammed Atta, menacing and
expressionless, the lone highjacker who looked the part. Before this, bin
Laden was little more than a man in a tent blandly holding forth for a
news camera, or awkwardly firing a Kalashnikov in some desert camp. Yesterday,
he looked us square in the eye and made the soliloquy that will forever
define him in future documentaries.