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the diary thing 
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11.01.01
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 horror
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THERE WAS A PHOTO in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine that just struck me with horror. It was the splash shot that opened that issue's cover story: "What Makes a Suicide Bomber". It showed the family of Ismail al-Masawabi, a 23-year old Palestinian who blew himself up on June 22, killing two Israeli Army sergeants. Since his death, his family has been showered with gifts by supporters of Hamas, the terrorist organization that supports suicide bombers like Ismail al-Masawabi.

The family stands in their new living room, the three surviving sons holding framed images of their brother the martyr, their mother and father standing behind them. The father's eyes seem dead, truly numb with mourning. The two older boys look at the camera with mixed looks of fear and sullenness, but the face of the youngest, who looks barely ten, is the most horrifying: naked terror, eyes wide with shock. 

Actually, his face isn't the most terrifying. That would be the face of the mother, who stands behind her older boys; her face under her hijab, barely visible behind her boy's shoulders, is proud, almost gloating, the trace of a smile turning up the corners of her mouth. "I was very happy when I heard," she says to the writer. "To be a martyr, that's something. Very few people can do it. I prayed to thank God...I hope my other children do the same." I couldn't help thinking, when I saw her face and read the piece: what a monster.

OKAY, I'M A PHOTOGRAPHER. I understand that this photo was the obvious pick, exactly the image the photographer was sent to get, and that the rest of his rolls might have been filled with shots of the same family, smiling and laughing, or uniformly somber and distraught; looking as normal as a Palestinian family can look these days, I suppose. I understand that the New York Times, like most of the media, are making propaganda of sorts -- not strictly the tethered voice of government policy, but a conscious, subjective effort to voice some comforting view of the world to readers looking for answers to why we're beginning a new century at the beginning of a war that seems to promise no end. 

The photo -- and the article that accompanies it -- provide the sharp comfort that some people need. It says, in effect, that the people who attacked us (although none of the attackers on 09/11 were Palestinians, but terrorism is terrorism, after all; at least that's the stark, shadowless message we've been handed) are not like us. Look into the eyes of that mother: she's crazy. What mother would willingly sacrifice her sons, would dream of seeing them die -- all of them -- long before her own death? 

The photo feeds my own dark thoughts; the dark thoughts that many of us harbour, unwilling or unable to voice them in polite company. Dark thoughts about the potential evil of parents, of the unspeakable underside of motherhood that acts vicariously through children, of the passive malevolence a woman can voice in the name of faith, family, country. It brings to mind the upright young women who walked city streets during the First World War, handing out the white feather of cowardice to seemingly able-bodied young men they'd encounter, serenely wrathful angels of shame. It's the kind of dark thought that makes me support the full combat participation of women in the military, as a levelling gesture; death as an equal opportunity.

It's the kind of unspeakable, dark thought that something like war makes us confront. It's the reason why we hate war, I suppose.


 
"And fight in the way of God with those who fight with you, but aggress not: God loves not the aggressors."
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- the Koran, II, 187

 
Here's a book review I wrote, a review of two books, actually, both basically about death. I am a truly morbid son of a bitch.

And Marc Weissblott, a colleague of mine -- and loyal reader of this diary -- has started his own diary/blog. Check it out.

There are some new reviews up on the movie review part of the site, including a new section for unreleased and/or unreleasable films.

Finally, I'm getting married in just over a week. In light of this, I'm refraining from any entries about the war, or politics, or the media, until the ring is on K.'s finger. Look forward to wedding coverage in the week to come.

BUT I CAN'T HELP BUT IMAGINE that any society, any country, any faction or group that embraces suicide attacks has already admitted their eventual defeat. What surer sign is there of hopelessness, of the future denied, than the sacrifice of the young people who should, if the society had any future, one day be its leaders? 

If anything could account for the miserable, doomed character of the period between the two world wars, it might have been the immense loss of young men, brilliant or not, in the trenches. There's a truism that the best die in wars; a triusm kept alive by the guilt of the survivors, and our own dark, unspeakable suspicion that those who survive -- which would include almost anyone alive after a world war -- somehow lacked that extra dose of courage, resolve, or conviction. 

Another dark thought. It's amazing that anything survives a war at all.

Politicians survive wars, at least those on the winning side. This might account for the ugly, craven nature of Cold War politics in America and Russia. It might also account for the awful little men who ruled Eastern Europe for almost forty years. It doesn't account for the men who led Japan and Germany out of ruin and infamy into prosperous democracies that only how seem to have tarnished.

Suicide bombers in Palestine reflect the hopelessness of the Palestinian situation. Israel -- a small nation that can still fight an invasion on two and three fronts and win -- must seem an almost supernaturally unbeatable enemy, especially with the implicit backing of the world's greatest nation. Nothing is more demoralizing than a state of life where your home, your livelihood, your freedom to walk the streets, can be denied you at any minute. It's a life few in the west can plausibly imagine. It's a reality that Palestinians live with constantly, ironically at the hands of a state that came into being after it's citizens were made to suffer the same nightmare existence. Ironic, sure, but irony, like fear or horror, is only enjoyable at a distance.

ANOTHER UNSPEAKABLE THOUGHT: There's more than enough to be found in the Koran to justify the martyrdom of a suicide bomber. I understand that it's noble and right to fight any attempt to regard Islam as a villain, and every Muslim as a potential terrorist. But when you open the Koran and read: 
 

"So let them fight in the way of God who sell the present life for the world to come; and whosoever fights in the way of God and is slain, or conquers, We shall bring him a mighty wage."

...you don't have to work hard to imagine the solace this gives a young man prepared to kill one, or ten, or a thousand people, in the name of something he regards as greater than himself. As much as we have every right to fear young men, if only because of their tendency to act without deep thought, and at the peak of their physical strength, it has to be remembered that young men act out of fear, out of a powerlessness they feel every time they contemplate their future. In the face of that fear, a short, glorious future, with the promise of an unequivocable reward delivered immediately seems perfect. Unreasonable, insane even, but perfect, if only to the eyes of a frustrated, ambitious young man, and something that the Times article didn't really mention.

Tolerance in the Koran is proscribed differently than in the Bible. Turning the other cheek is considered a tolerance of evil, and evil must constantly be fought. It just depends on what you consider evil. 

America, according to militants, is godless, therefore pagan, and must be fought. On the news, I've seen a clip shown a couple of times, where a boy in a madrassa in northern Pakistan tells his interviewer how he can't wait to go to Afghanistan to fight America. "In American, they commit unspeakable acts with their parents," he explains confidently, with a shy smile. You want to hit him, and then you want to cry.

If you have an enemy, you have a war, and in the Koran all wars of defense are holy wars. It's all there, in black and white, and if all you're allowed to read is the Koran, then you can summon the word of God to explain your righteousness. It's so simple as to be maddening, especially for anyone raised in the tradition of humanism, the long public elaboration of Judeo-Christian ethics in a pluralistic, material society. Of course these young men, and the Taliban, sound like they come from the middle ages; that was the last time our own society had to rely on one book, and the interpretation of it by churches and kings, to give us our marching orders. We have our own history of slaughter theoretically sanctioned by God, and the memory of it is our collective nightmare. The Taliban is our nightmare come back to life.

IT'S A NIGHTMARE, ALRIGHT. How else do you describe a war where our theoretical allies -- Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- publicly collect money for our enemy, and watch impassively as their citizens sneak into enemy territory to join their armies? Imagine if, in the days after Pearl Harbour, New Zealanders were sending money to Japan, or Britons were sneaking across the channel to join the Waffen SS?

In many ways, this isn't a modern war at all, but more like those of the middle ages, or the renaissance, when merchants traded openly with both sides, when mercenaries would fight whomever they were paid to fight, and when politics and religion had precious little border separating them. I wonder how many of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have read Cellini, or know much about the Battle of Fornovo, and the sack of Rome by the Holy Roman Emperor's armies? More precious irony, I suppose. I wonder if the generals would imagine themselves as the Italians, or as Charles V and his army? It doesn't matter in any case, since history these days repeats itself, not as tragedy, or comedy, but as a truly awful movie that you hate yourself for watching over and over.

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writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
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