the diary thing 
THE 'PHONEY WAR' ENDED YESTERDAY. It wasn't really so long -- a month of newspaper histrionics and endless experts on chat shows hedging their bets by saying what amounted, ultimately, to the obvious. On the t.v., we got a pre-recorded message from Usama bin Laden -- such a pathetic villain, really, with his doleful eyes and the ascetic's apparent hatred of his body -- and blue-green-black night vision shots of the sky over Kabul (or was it Kandahar?), a vision of combat even more indistinct than those shot in the skies over Baghdad and Belgrade; not a single building visible to delineate the horizon, except when a bomb bursts or a necklace of anti-aircraft tracers shoots through the frame. It's war, as painted by Gerhard Richter or some other, painfully minimal, abstract expressionist.

I SUPPOSE IF THERE'S ANY KIND OF UPSIDE to any of this, it's that the public at large is getting a fast, intensive education on Islam, Central Asian geography, and the history of American foreign policy since Vietnam. Not only can the President probably pick out Tajikistan on a map, perhaps at least a pollable minority of the voting public can as well. A year or so ago, the big campaign joke was that George W. Bush couldn't name the leader of Pakistan, but knew at least that he was a General. Now Genral Musharaf is probably on his speed dial.

Between PBS and the BBC, newsless periods of programming on cable news channels over the last month have been filled with countless documentaries on terrorism, on the Mideast, on the history of Islam and Afghanistan in particular. The man on the street, for the first time ever, might even know the difference between a Pashtun and an Uzbek, provided of course he knows the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim. It's been a bonus for news junkies like myself. Regardless of the situation, I would have watched them anyway.

The most discussed documentary was one done by a BBC journalist, a woman of Afghan descent who went back to her parents' homeland with hidden cameras, and filmed the atrocious circumstances under which women live there. In particular, a shaky, covert shot of a woman being publicly executed in a soccer stadium has been excerpted and discussed endlessly. Having hit a potent nerve, the journalist has apparently been signed to write a book, based on her film.

While I think it overdue that a popular sense of outrage has been directed against regimes like the Taliban, I can't forget that this state of affairs has been in place for more than five years, with scant protest coming from any but the "usual" quarters -- women's groups and human rights agencies. Suddenly, it's an official, government-defined Outrage Against Humanity. A year ago, it was merely regrettable, an example of the beastliness of foreigners, to be regretted in carefully-worded official apologies a generation or two from now, when the logic of the free-market triumphs even in the dusty hills of Persia's long-gone empire.

Last year, when the Taliban -- with much fanfare and seeming provocation -- destroyed ancient statues of the Buddha carved into cliffsides in their eastern countryside, there was another flurry of outrage, then a glum, resigned retirement of the issue. The assault on cultural heritage lost oxygen when it transpired that the Taliban's will to deface their country's history was stronger than the West's ability to stop them. At the time, I thought: Nothing good will come of this. It felt like an omen, a hint of something, like the sudden cooling of the air when you're suddenly in shadow. Or maybe I'm just giving the memory grave significance in hindsight. I expect there's a lot of that going on these days.

The latest news, really nothing more than substantial rumour and bottom-of-the-page coverage, is that the Taliban dressed up dogs in neckties, named them Bush, and burned them alive in obligatorily-attended public ceremonies. Perhaps this would have played bigger a year ago, but when thousands of bodies look like they'll never emerge from the wreckage of the World Trade Centre, it's little more than the stuff of outraged bulletin board postings. This is, I suppose, what counts as "perspective".

"A bomb in the National Gallery would make some noise. But it would not be serious enough. Art has never been their fetish. It's like breaking a few back windows in a man's house; whereas, if you want to make him really sit up, you must try at least to raise the roof. There would be some screaming, of course, but from whom? Artists -- art critics and such like -- people of no account. Nobody minds what they say."
- Joseph Conrad
The Secret Agent

War, at last. Outside my window, the ash tree has changed from green to red to yellow in a week, and begun shedding its leaves. It'll be bare in a week, and I'll sit here in full view of my neighbours for another winter. Nothing has changed, it seems. 

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 from now.

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.

writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
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