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the diary thing 
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10.17.01
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 doubt
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IF I COULD SPEAK ARABIC -- and my lack of talent for languages is the thing I most regret in my life -- I would be sending my resume to Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based sattelite news station right now. "The Muslim CNN", they're calling it. I've taken to reading the Al-Ahram Weekly website -- the English-language digest of the Cairo newspaper -- hoping for some perspective to offset the thin, repetitious t.v. coverage and the threnody of bickering that has overwhelmed the op-ed pages, as ideologues from all over the political spectrum accuse each other of insufficient patriotism, of lack of foresight, of fascist leanings, of appeaser's tendencies. 

Al-Ahram is hardly an extremist paper. It's pro-Mubarak, which is to say pro-Sadat, and the fact that they even have an English-language edition means that they're far from Islamist in leaning. Most of the writers and editors working there know that, should the Islamist revolution succeed across the Muslim world, they'd be the first ones in jail, on a plane to the west, or hanging from a lamppost. Still, it's one of the few places where you can read simple, undefensive statements that explain the American foreign policy blunders that fed, clothed, armed and encouraged fundamentalist terrorism. It's also one of the few places that is willing to say the unsayable: The case against Usama bin Laden wouldn't stand up in a conventional court of law.

I'm not saying this because I think bin Laden innocent -- far from it. While I'm certain that the chain of intent for the Sept. 11th attacks leads back to him, it's also obvious that any attempt to decisively prosecute him for it, at least according to documentation released by Bush, is a mess of hearsay, inference, circumstantial evidence, and supposition that wouldn't stand up under a writ of habeas corpus. It's why I'm certain the American military would rather toss air-fuel bombs in every cave in the Hindu Kush rather than risk seeing bin Laden walk calmly into a Hague courtroom.

Simply, if we want to call this war a "crusade for justice", then we'd better do a good job of pleading our case as cop, prosecutor, judge and jury. And frankly, anyone who wants to assume all of those roles is putting themselves in a hopeless position from the start.

I DON'T HAVE A LOT OF HOPE when I look at the men in charge of the war. Too many key players -- Rumsfeld, Powell, Cheney -- go back as far as the Reagan or even Ford administrations. There wouldn't be much hope under a Democratic White House either; when you hear men like William Quandt (Mideast expert at the National Security Council under Carter) say that, even as the Shah fell, no one at the NSC, the CIA or in government knew much about the Islamist movement, you have to worry.

It's not just that powerful, supposedly intelligent men, were too complacent to realize that the Shah was mostly an illusion they were selling themselves. It's that, for years afterwards, they went on ignoring the implications of the Ayatollah's revolution, of the Intifadah, of Hussein's Iraq, of the mujahideen, of the BJP in India, of Hamas and Hezbollah and suicide bombers and hardline policy in Israel, intent on treating foreign policy like a game of Risk best played out of sight of American voters who, after all, only care about taxes.

I had a long talk with a friend the other day, a friend who tends to believe in what would uncharitably be called conspiracy theories. (Uncharitably because a belief in conspiracy tends to suggest a paranoid, even a simplemind, and my friend is a lot smarter than that.) He can draw the lines between any powerful figure in government, media or business, and draw lines running through the Council on Foreign Relations, the Fed, the Bilderberg Group or any number of shadowy organizations without once having to mention the Freemasons or the Illuminati. It's a remarkable exercise, requiring considerable amounts of reading a memory, but I don't buy it. As much as I believe that most of what's wrong with the world has to do with the decisions of these men, I don't think there's been a conspiracy. That would be nice -- comforting, even -- to think that some order can be counted upon, that enough power rests in enough hands to ensure that, though we might be deluding ourselves to think that our vote matters, someone somewhere will see it in our best interests to keep us fed, entertained, and working happily at the levers and gears of their machinery.

But it isn't so. The simple formula of Ockham's Razor suggests -- to me, at least -- that witlessness, greed, shortsightedness, and plain old stupidity are more likely at the heart of every crisis, every anxious moment, in human history.

THERE'S SOMETHING RIDICULOUS about hearing a Pentagon spokesman state, a week or so into the campaign, that they have achieved "total air supremacy" over Afghanistan. Since, according to most estimates, the best the Taliban could field in the air was a half-dozen ill-maintained MiGs and some surplus Russian helicopters, I doubt if this was much of a feat. In any case, I doubt if the Taliban sent up a single one of those MiGs; winning the "war on terrorism", from their perspective, simply means remaining alive, on the ground, in caves, sending tapes to Al-Jazeera, taking journalists around to see blasted villages and bloodied children in filthy hospital beds. 

In any case, it's an absurd statement, made, I would guess, in the absence of anything else in the nature of concrete news. Since the U.S. forces apparently lost a drone aircraft within the first days of the war, it's to be assumed that there's still some sting left in the Stinger missiles so liberally handed out when the Afghanis were not-so-covert friends. As soon as the first A-10 Prowler or troop helicopter is lost when ground support missions are made, any claim of "total air supremacy" will seem pretty laughable. In any case, with Anthrax arriving in the mails as regularly as L.L. Bean catalogues, it seems like "total postal supremacy" is what's needed.

After the First World War, the notion of war as an economic battle became conventional wisdom. In an age of carpet bombing, blockades, and war industries competing like Coke and Pepsi with bombers, it was obvious that the side that could outproduce the other without defaulting on their debts and keep gas in their tanks would be the winner. I suppose Vietnam was the first sign that this theory was as obsolete as battleships. Still, no one learned the lesson, and today we're facing the reality that a country, popularly described as "already in the stone age", can win a war with one striving to make "Star Trek" a reality. 

Aid agencies trying to feed the Afghan people -- surely more effective than carpet-bombing the country with peanut-butter sandwiches -- are asking for a cease-fire in the air strikes so they can get in and distribute food before winter shuts down mountain passes. I can't see why it shouldn't happen -- if "total air supremacy" has been achieved, I doubt if the Taliban will, in the interim, suddenly produce a squadron of jet fighters with "top gun" pilots. Since the U.S. is unwilling to hit Taliban positions on the front facing the Northern Alliance -- there's some suspicion that the Alliance might not offer the best government for post-Taliban Afghanistan, a position encouraged by Pakistan; the political trumping the tactical -- then a few days of stand-down will only harm the image of relentlessness and grim purpose Bush has strived to maintain since he was pulled away from a kindergarten reading class over a month ago.

As the weeks pass, and even the horror of Sept. 11th starts to seem normal, I'd like to think that the illusion of heroic vengefulness can be relaxed. It's a remnant of optimism I like to carry around, like a letter from an old flame.


 
"'I have always dreamed,' he mouthed, fiercely, 'of a band of men absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of means, strong enough to give themselves frankly the name of destroyers, and free from the taint of that resigned pessismism which rots the world. No pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity -- that's what I would have liked to see.'"
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- Joseph Conrad
The Secret Agent

I can't recommend this book enough; a hundred years old and more relevant than a report from the Rand Corporation.

 
War fever turns into war funk. Some silly babble about sci-fi tv.

BY THE WAY, I HATE "STAR TREK". I should get that out of the way first. That said, I have to admit that I'm addicted to "Enterprise", the new Trek prequel that premiered last month. K. shakes her head when she comes home and sees me watching it; sci-fi is just way too corny for her. Any sci-fi, with the exception of the Alien movies. Those just scare her to death.

I've never been able to stand the original "Star Trek", and can't see how anyone could tolerate it, except as sheer camp. (I'm sorry James -- I just can't be polite about this.) Whenever I see those cheesy sets and the gruesome lighting and the absurd costumes, I can't hit the remote button fast enough. (Miniskirts in space! Wouldn't that get the public into the space shuttle missions again: "Gentlemen, I'd like to introduce you to Donatella. She'll be giving our crews a bit of that 'Miami coke slut' look that NASA thinks will double our budget when those fornicators in Congress vote on appropriations.")

And Roddenberry's cosmology, while silly enough when Bill Shatner made out with green women, only got worse as the series proceeded. The Prime Directive, a noble bit of hogwash, was violated as regularly as section 1 of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. And the ethnology of the series, by the time "Deep Space Nine" had rolled around, was as hackneyed as a Sax Rohmer novel; the Germanic Klingons, the inscrutable, "oriental" Vulcans, and the Ferengi, an ugly caricature of Jews that Henry Ford could have written.

I didn't mind "Voyager" so much, even if it had fallen fatally for the quick "Trek fix": when frustrated by the tedious constraints of everything happening on a spaceship, send everyone into the holodeck to fight the Nazis. But still, there was the technobabble, the endless reliance on "tachyon pulses" and "subspace frequencies" and transporters, that deus ex machina that turns every episode into an unfunny bedroom farce. It helps to remind yourself that Roddenberry invented it to help each hour clip along without having to build "shuttle" sets. I had long lost track of the various alien species, couldn't tell a Bajoran from a Cardassian, and really didn't care, since they all acted like the permanently raging, quarreling families in daytime soaps.

And don't get me started on the movies.

But I'm getting to really love "Enterprise". No holodecks, no "Q", no Borg, and no time travel twisting each storyline back onto itself like a moebius strip run through a shredder.

There's the theme song, of course; some anguished piffle from Diane Warren about having "faith of the heart" and no, I don't know what that means. But the title sequence is thrilling; a lovely, gracefully edited visual timeline of the technology of travel, from sails to Kitty Hawk to the space shuttle to a pair of imagined machines that look like cousins of the next generation of NASA/JPL prototypes. It sets up a nice reminder at the beginning of each episode that "Enterprise" is set a century and a half from now, in an era our grandchildren might inhabit.

Scott Bakula is your typical granite-jawed ancestor of Buck Rogers, a space opera cliche, but he doesn't bug me. I imagine you might need a gung-ho BMOC type at the helm of any ship, certainly more than a querulous skeptic (like yours truly). I like it that the human cast is largely uncomfortable around aliens, and struggle to overcome a collective distrust of the Vulcans who have patronizingly shepherded them from their first contact. I like that the Vulcans are as condescending to humans as NATO governments are to developing countries. The whole crew is afflicted with the same Vulanphobia that only, quaintly, seemed to afflict Dr. McCoy. 

There's precious little technobabble, and an insistence on reminding us that the ship and its crew spend weeks and months between episodes travelling through empty, tedious space. The sight of a new planet or a ship really is an adventure, and not just a new entry in the captain's log. The first Enterprise seems cramped, its untested gizmos as prone to failure as my laptop. The chief engineer, a vague bigot, seems fated to cross "the final frontier" and have intimate knowledge of T'Pol, the Vulcan science officer; the ship's translator is frazzled, anxious, and scared shitless most of the time. (Of course she is -- it's space! These are aliens! No one speaks the same fucking language! It's nice that the Trek franchise has finally been forced to acknowledge this fact. Maybe they'll tackle the problem of waste disposal on a spaceship next.) It's the closest the franchise has ever gotten to showing believable people in unbelievable situations.

Just don't call me a Trekkie. I've killed people for less.

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writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
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