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the diary thing 
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12.16.01
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taliban johnnyPROBABLY 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 beginning. 

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 slip. 

"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 true."

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 mall.


 
"All our babies are born from a cabbage," Nurse Jo-Ann said. "This cabbage patch is exclusive to our store here. Mother Cabbage is about to give birth. I'm dilating Mother Cabbage now, and she'll be dilated for ten full cabbage leaves. Push, Mother Cabbage, push!"

Nurse Tracey said, "Mother Cabbage is nervous. Calm her down."

Everybody around the cabbage patch looked anxious.

"This is creepy," one of the little girls said. Their shepherd gave a deep sigh.
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- Lillian Ross at the new Toys R Us store in Times Square, from the Dec. 10 New Yorker

 
A long, long, long one, the longest in a while. Pretty much a total head-clearing about the war. I think about this thing all the time. Even when nothing's happening, I keep running over the last three months, rummaging through bookstores for more information, some overlooked book or essay that'll bring the whole thing into focus. No luck, so far.

THERE DOESN'T SEEM to be much more to say about John Walker Lindh, Taliban Stooge, that hasn't been said already. He's a traitor who should be hung; a "poor fellow" who was sadly misled; a flakey little shit who makes a decent case for adding Marin County to the list of states harbouring terrorists. 

He won't hang, I'm sure of that -- covert, legally questionable tribunals followed by discreet executions might turn out to be fine enough for furtive dark men in turbans, but not for one of our own, even if he'd done his best to become dark, furtive and turbanned. A well-covered trial will probably be the media event of 2002; even when the story broke, and Taliban Johnny's grime-smeared face appeared in the papers, I could imagine a really readable 10,000-word story in the New Yorker, maybe even an A&E bio. 

I think there's a market for both. After all, if anyone could answer the persistent question that's troubled the West since 09/11 -- "Why do they hate us so much?" -- it might be Johnny Fatwa. In the days after the attack, after the shock of watching Palestinians celebrating our tragedy, the voices of clear-minded "experts" were made available, assuring us that they hated us because they wanted to be us. They wanted the big t.v. and the digital dish, the X-box and the Snapple and the Prada knock-offs. From the left, we were told that the remedy lay in debt forgiveness, foreign aid, and more democracy. From the right, the solution was open markets, property rights and more democracy. The left's solution looked more like work, so we tended to nod with enthusiasm at the right.

But then, along comes Johnny Walker, the Luckless Madrassa Exchange Student, and we're forced to confront the unimaginable -- that someone raised in the indulgent lap of the West, free to be you and me, might conceive of such a hatred for our near-perfect world that he'd journey halfway around the world with his father's credit card, looking for a place in the army of jihad, eager to turn the Empire State Building into the world's largest minaret, while DKNY debuts the spring line of designer burkas. In one, dirt-smeared, shoeless form, in his torn jumper and olive drab pyjamas, the very symbol of western self-hatred had crystallized out of the prison massacre at Qalai Janghi. 

After all, we're a pretty permissive society, and the broadest permission we extend, especially to our young people, is freedom to rebel, in the most creative ways. Actually you have to be pretty creative to rebel in a society that can commodify the latest shape of rebellion with ease, turning it into an ad, a t-shirt, a runway show or a niche-market magazine in six months. You have to think that, if there are more Johnny Lindhs out there, it won't be long before AOL/Time Warner or Conde Nast comes up with J: The Magazine of Jihad. Staffed by a group of hotshots hired away from *wallpaper, Nest and Adbusters, I imagine it reading like a cross between Real Simple and Mother Jones

"Read" would be the key word, since the Koran does prohibit representations of the human form -- I mean, any photography at all -- but I'm sure legal will find a way around it. After all, we have this incredible burka and headwrap layout by Stephane Sednaoui, and this amazing architectural spread shot in Dubai and Bahrain. It's gorgeous. I mean, the whole "Arab Brasilia" thing is so new, it's like the "Congo Bungalow" of next year. 

I'm joking of course. Well, maybe only a bit. I mean, it's not unimaginable, especially after the economy picks up again. You've got to wonder how all this sudden, shotgun blast of attention on Islam is going to affect young people whose ability to filter and interpret television is a bit less than critical. After all, ten years after he was killed by the Bolivian army, Che Guevara was still a popular college pin-up. And Osama, say what you will, has Che chic in spades. 

SERIOUSLY, THERE'S A BIT of John Walker Lindh in almost every young person, in every kind of rebel, or seeker, or principled nonconformist. He's just the inarticulate, risible evolution of the Unabomber, the politically incorrect, gender-hostile, much less-than-queer-positive cousin of globalization protesters, the Bay Area iteration of those Christian fundamentalists who move to discreet communities so they can practice an ascetic, charismatic version of Protestantism, or some kind of hardline Catholicism that's trying to pretend that Vatican II never happened. He's either the most literal practitioner of multiulturalism, or the purest of luddites. It's just a shame no one told him about the Amish when they handed the impressionable simp a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

There was a bit of John Walker Lindh in my poet friend, who was afflicted with the intellectual's idealism of peasant life, a subtle expression of a restless hatred of his books and his learning and his carefully acquired sophistication. After all, they'd gotten him nowhere but halfway across the world from his native country, in a place where no one could understand his poetry, after leaving a country that would publish him but neglected to offer him a living, preferring to tear itself apart in a series of ugly civil wars. He'd seen plenty of peasants -- would himself have been one, a hundred years ago -- and they seemed much happier to him, less troubled by the confusing spectacle of politics and cities and literary cliques and commodity culture.

There's nothing original or revolutionary about finding modern life unsatisfying anymore, and since the West seems to have the patent on modernity, rebellion against modernity is, by implication, rebellion against the West. It's no surprise that he's found his apologists already, those aged seekers who see young Lindh's journey east as "Sulayman" as just another young soul seeking perfection. Alas, the ashram turned out to be a madrassa, and the Peace Corps turned out to be the International Brigade of the Taliban, but it isn't the Sixties anymore, is it?

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writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
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