|PROBABLY THE FUNNIEST part -- and there are funny parts, even in a war -- of the media coverage of the war in Afghanistan has been the rapid familiarity assumed by newscasters, pundits and other "authorities" on the peculiarities of the Afghan conflict. You'd assume from the tone implied that most of the east coast press corps did time at the Tashkent bureau, and that people like Aaron Brown attend a loya jirga every other summer, while the kids were staying with their grandparents out at Amagansett. Indeed, the sense of relief when the Bonn talks produced something that looked like a "government" for the country is laughable, especially in light of it coming from American media types.
I mean, even in a time of war, bipartisan government is
still just a dream in Washington. It's amazing that a state of political
war can exist between two parties whose basic interests are about as disparate
as rugby and soccer. If the Afghani coalition can hold itself together
till the spring, when a new government is supposed to be "elected" at a
tribal council (see: Loya Jirga), then it should put both Senate
and Congress to shame. After all, these are people who, fifteen, ten, five
years ago -- hell, try as recently as six months ago -- were openly at
war, some of them on the side of the Soviets (our not-so-covert enemy,
remember?), some of them at the head of near-Taliban mini-regimes. This
is a country where the city is literally at war with the country, and loyalty
extends about as far as your uncle's children.
The funniest part is the inference that we've somehow
won a war in Afghanistan. Indeed, if anything, we've only helped win a
war against the Taliban, and only in the context of the country's larger
cities. In the countryside, you have to assume that little has changed,
and tribal loyalties, essentially fluid, are seeking the same level as
before. We've essentially provided the expensive hardware for something
like a combination of a coup and a civil war. It's as if the North had
beaten the South in the Civil War with the aid of space aliens and their
death rays. Two months ago, the word "quagmire" was being thrown around
a lot, in a military sense. Today, anyone who used the word is either muttering apologies or being hounded from the op-ed pages, their card tossed from the Rolodex of network talent bookers. The quagmire, alas, could only be
IF ANY TECHNOLOGY has emerged as truly important -- seminal,
even totemic -- since Sept. 11th, it isn't guided missiles or smart
bombs or satellite surveillance imagery, but the amateur video camera.
The majority of the images of the attack on New York were taken by cheap
consumer-level cameras, which seemed to be in the hands of practically
every other witness in downtown Manhattan and across the Hudson in New
Jersey and Staten Island. Cameras bought to document weddings and birthdays
and Xmas, stowed in the backs of cars and in cheap shoulder bags thrown
in with package deals by the salesman at Sam Goody or the Future Shop.
It was cheap cameras, screwed into surveillance mounts
and recording low-resolution footage on long-play tapes, that recorded
the only moving images we have of the highjackers going about their business
in the hours leading up to the attacks. These cameras are everywhere; you
can buy a variation on them to replace your old audio-only baby monitor.
If you live in a city, you pass under their scrutiny several times a day.
And now, another such camera ends up shooting Osama bin
Laden's apparent confession, in some stark guest house in Kandahar. No
technical details of the camera itself have been given -- I'm imagining
a two-year-old Panasonic or Sony with a missing lens cap and a sticky eject
button, bought in an electronics market in Dubai or Karachi -- but I can
see the turbaned soldier sitting on the sidelines reaching for it, checking
to see if there's a tape inside, fiddling with the supposedly ergonomic
little switches (yeah, ergonomic if you're a squid or an elf), wincing
when he realizes he started taping halfway through, sitting with agitated
patience while the little motor whirs through a rewind, cursing himself
for missing some tasty proverb or quote from the hadith that Osama let
"I hope I didn't tape over Mahmoud's birthday party,"
he thinks to himself. "The in-laws will never let me forget that. Here
I am fighting the jihad and all they can do is give the wife grief
over me leaving that great job at the Riyadh Hilton. I mean, who cares
about benefits when you've got a chance to crush the infidel? I mean, full
dental coverage, okay, sweet, but still..."
THE TAPE WAS A GIFT for the U.S., obtained, it's been
suggested, in an intelligence sting, one that miraculously worked, and
pretty much the smoking gun that Bush, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, etc. were looking
for; the keystone of the propaganda war. You want proof: here's your proof.
It's a shame that it wouldn't hold up in a court of law.
I mean, as confessions go, it isn't exactly perfect -- no details are given
that any other maniac eager for infamy couldn't evoke. Any defense lawyer
worth their salt could render it inadmissable, or blast it's value to the
prosecution by suggesting reasonable doubt: "My client is clearly not sane,
your honour. Frankly, he'd admit to blowing up the Hindenburg or attacking
Pearl Harbour if he'd only been alive at the time." Osama had an apparently
important dinner guest; now would be as good a time as any to take credit
for the most grievous blow against the Great Satan. It's like taking credit
for that fantastic renovation at your housewarming party when you know
it was done by the previous tenants. Hell, it's your house now.
Moreover, it's value as propaganda is rather diminished
by one basic fact, one that makes almost any propaganda virtually useless.
The only people convinced by the tape are those who already believed bin
Laden guilty in the first place; the intended audience -- the devout and
unshakeably anti-Western muslims of Asia and the Middle East -- are happy
to dismiss it as a forgery, or to take the lawyer's stance outlined above
and regard it as poor evidence. You can't convince anyone of something
they didn't already believe in the first place.
A week or two before the tape aired, there were already
newspaper pieces suggesting that the U.S. should take advantage of Hollywood's
impressive SFX talents and manufacture incriminating footage. No doubt
these pieces will be resurrected by the same people who want
to believe that every Jew with a job at the WTC called in sick the
morning of the 11th. Even when reason revolts against these improbabilities,
the will to believe will overrule reason every time.
I ONCE HAD A FRIEND -- a published poet, an educated,
well-travelled man -- who once tried to loan me a copy of The Protocols
of the Learned Elders of Zion to win me over to his simmering, paranoid
anti-Semitism. I groaned when he mentioned the book's title; of course
I'd read it, along with Mein Kampf and Henry Ford's The International Jew. I make it my business to read odious, wackjob stuff -- it's why I never skip the op-ed pages of The
National Post. I also knew if was a notorious forgery, the work of the Tsarist secret police, and as noxious a fairy tale as has ever existed. It was rubbish, I told him, and said I was amazed that any intelligent person could take it seriously. I am such an idealist, sometimes.
He protested -- it explained everything that had happened
for a century or more, neatly laid bare the awful machinery of history.
Moreover, it explained why he had found progress in his own profession
so difficult -- neither a Jew or a Freemason, he was doomed to remain forever
on the outside of fame, power and riches. Once again, I told him I thought
he was falling into a trap, mistaking convenient fantasy for frustrating
reality. I finally made a case for the Protocols as a forgery --
the evidence is out there, easily accessible, of you want to find it --
but he trumped me with one, deadly sentence.
"Okay, maybe it's a forgery, but I still believe it's
At which point I gave up, saying that reasonable discussion
was impossible now that we'd entered a realm where words had no impact.
There's reason, and there's faith, and he'd professed his devotion to an
idea I couldn't address with mere reason.
An illiterate man selling movie posters or sandals in
the market in Islamabad, a woman in Palestinian Jerusalem mourning a son
who died for Hamas, a Filipino Islamic guerilla kidnapping eco-tourists,
or a second-rate Wahhabi cleric in a run-down mosque on the road to Medina
has no reason to change their mind about America's grasping perfidy, about
Osama bin Laden's sainted, messianic purity, or about the conspiracy they
see ruining their world. They inhabit an apocalyptic landscape, but asking
them to destroy the pillars of their worldview for uncertainties and a
certain lack of hope is beyond a normal person's capabilities.
We live in a society that, until a year ago, ran its money
markets on the principle that technology had broken the cycle of history,
that fiscal downturns were obsolete now that productivity would never again
diminish. Of course, the people who most eagerly bought and sold this fantasy
were the people who had the most to gain from it becoming reality. It's
just as easy to sell -- and buy -- a much darker vision of the past and
future. You just have to make sure it explains everything, from the way
summers seem to be getting hotter, to why your wages never seem to cover
your expenses, to why your kids stopped loving you with such once-comforting
ardour once they started watching videos and spending more time at the