I am no impartial observer. I live in Midtown Manhattan (steps from Times Square, thus my Kuro5hin moniker circletimessquare). I work now blocks from the United Nations. Walking home late some nights I have gone out of my way to walk by the UN. During the diplomatic squabbling preceding the War on Iraq, I gazed out over the army of white news vans with satellite dishes on their roofs, like vultures waiting to descend upon a great dying beast. Recently I went inside the United Nations, for the first time since grade school, and purchased a copy of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights for $1.00. The mini-pamphlet felt tiny and light, like a tiny sliver of hope in a world gone mad.
I worked at 5 World Trade Center until the morning of September 11th, 2001. It was a small 9-story office and shopping building that sat on the corner of the original 16-acre World Trade Center site. It was rained on with hot concrete and burning steel and consequently was pummeled and fried into a quickly forgotten shell that morning. I lost 4 computers and 2 years of code, as well as a good job (I was laid off in November of 2001), but, luckily for me but not so luckily for so many other people, that was all I lost. I still remember leaving work on Monday, September 10th around 9 PM, looking across the plaza towards the sound of a lone guitarist I could not find visually, somewhere near the fountain at the base of "The Sphere" (described by it's creator, Fritz Koenig, ironically now, as "a monument fostering world peace").
Wherever you are in the world, make note of this interstice in time. Your grandchildren may wonder what you were thinking during this time of great change, they may even ask you.
The world changes every day, but sometimes the drama is remarkable. I wonder what life was like for our grandparents and great grandparents in previous trying times in the world, and so someday our grandchildren and great grandchildren will think about what our lives might have been like. What mistakes did we make? What things did we do that were brave? People will wonder about us rightfully in the future. And conclude about us, all of us, our feebleness or our strength, which could lie in either hawkish or dovish instincts. Such is the benefits of hindsight, something none of us have right now.
When Archduke Ferdinand was shot, who said that that was not the beginning of the Great War? When John Brown raided Harpers Ferry, who said that that was not the beginning of the American Civil War? But with hindsight, and only with hindsight, we know this: those catalclysms were the beginning of a cascade of events over which no one had any control. September 11th looms in my mind.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
- Margaret Mead
I believe in human progress. I am not apocalyptic in my world view. I do not look over history and see a cycle of violence with no meaning, because human progress does happen, albeit in fits and starts, and is always accompanied, unfortunately but in a sort of sick dependent way, upon human suffering. Such is the principle of creative destruction. There is no creation without destruction, and visa versa. To see progress without suffering is blind. To see suffering without progress is cynical.
When Gavrilo Princip and his small group killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, who had any idea that their actions would precipitate World War I? His group was a small cell of radical ideologues. They were committed to violence to further their goals. He can be called alternatively an anarchist, a nationalist, a terrorist, a freedom fighter, depending upon if you ask a Serbian or those committed to the peace and stability of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On the edge of that splintering, decaying grand empire, in decay as it was, they were fighting for the identity of their people, and they started the collapse of that mighty empire. Surely, the sun is setting on the American Empire today just as fast as the Austro-Hungarian Empire then. And surely, the terrorists of September 11th, 2001 had no idea of what they set in motion as much as Gavrilo Princip and his cell had no idea what foreboding he unleashed in 1914 in Sarajevo.
So it looks like the UN, or at least its legitimacy to lead, is in fray. Now, Russia stands with Germany and France. A new united European counterpoint to American hegemony in the world. To what end? Does anyone know? Anyone else have the feeling of sitting at the top of a hill in a car without breaks, just beginning the imperceptible motions that we know signal the beginning of a 50 mile per hour slide down that hill?
We all sit here today, 2 years after September 11th, feeling as if things are in a sort of lukewarm calm. We forget when we read history how we receive it in our textbooks and television documentaries in nicely prepackaged shots, without the interstices in time in between of relative calm. Punctuated Equilibirum. The pendulum swinging from one end to the other. Silent change at work in the plate tectonics of geopolitics and socieconomics, wielding pressure in places none of us perceive, for would we perceive them, surprises like September 11th would never happen.
Remembering the madness that descended upon Europe in 1914, maybe that is why the Europeans objected so much to waging war on Iraq. They recognized the coming storm, because they have been there before. Their continent is littered with the dead from that conflict that so much resembles the stormclouds that march across the Middle East.
Americans are afraid and cowed. Pearl Harbor happened in a distant protectorate. And speaking of foreboding interstices in time, let us not forget how that conflict ended. However, September 11th happened in the very heart of their most important city.
Americans circle the wagons, freely trading freedom for security and happily rushing towards the right of the political spectrum since only George W Bush and his NeoCons offer them any certainty, any security. The American Political Left is in disarray and retreat, with no platform, no words, no strategy to address the most pressing concerns Americans have about September 11th: religious madmen from a largely alien culture hellbent on killing and destroying them. And the madmen seem to have had spectacularly successful effects on the American imagination. For at the very least, on an almost Hollywood B-movie scale, the violent religious fundamentalists have scared the living daylights out of the Americans.
The NeoCons offer the Americans certainty and security, and the Americans buy it hook, line, and sinker. So they rush headlong into monumental change and warfare. Are the Americans rushing us all into the madness? European anxiety is appropriate, reasonable, and responsible.
Today, no Austrian needs worry about puttering around Sarajevo. And maybe that is the point. Princip got what he wanted. But what will give fundamentalist terrorists what they want? Was Princip's cause sound? The antipathy of Europeans to war in the Middle East is noble, but what will appease the enemy of the peace? And by enemy of the peace, George W Bush is not implied. Surely you are a fool if you do not see how September 11th handed the NeoCons all the pretense in the mind of the American public to do as they please in the Middle East. Do you see the deeper evil at work?
I think Europeans should make themselves busy about what to do about George W Bush. George W Bush is an idiot. But in a year, or a few, in 2004 or 2008, he will be gone, replaced by another idiot in chief. So he is but a red herring. America's economy suffers, its coffers run dry from the weight of waging war, and its actions right now do nothing but create universal antipathy the world over, all of the good will from September 11th utterly squandered. Before September 11th, in 2000, 75% of Indonesians had a favorable opinion of the United States. Today, 83% do not like the United States.
2 years after September 11th, I do not see calm, I see a calm before the storm. The conflict is not over, it is only beginning. And America's power wanes. So America is a red herring too.
So what are we left with? Ask Princip what he wanted, and maybe Europeans should make themselves busy with what the Princips of 2001 wanted as much as they are making themselves busy with George W Bush. Because that is the real problem before the world. Bali and the perceptibible uptick in bombings in Southeast Asia. Kenya and the continuing madness in Israel. Russia and Chechnya and the hostage takers in Moscow. Men who are willing trade their life for fundamentalist martyrdom. The source of the conflict between civilizations that drives the tap of young men willing and able to give themselves to suicide attacks is not emptied, nor is it near being emptied. Nor does anyone honestly know when the tap will be emptied or how to mend the socioeconomic and geopolitical wellspring that continually refills this tap with men who otherwise would be engineers and lawyers, fathers and grandfathers.
The rise of well-organized, well-funded, violent International religious fundamentalism. This is the world we live in. I once lived in midtown Manhattan and felt distant from these threats. Ask me now how distant I feel. Ask yourself how distant you feel. In today's increasingly smaller and smaller world of the Internet and Jet air travel, what happens in Kabul matters in Manhattan, what happens in Mindanao matters in Canberra, what happens in Beirut matters in Nairobi. There is no more hiding behind great oceans and deep mountains. There is no protection from madness for anyone.
We scream about Iraq. We obsess over America and its idiot leader. But underneath it all, rises a new conflict that cannot be denied. A new emotional storm before us. And George W Bush is but a bit player in it. America is but a bit player in it. The whole world moves and repositions itself to be consumed by it.
In the US, not far from Washington DC, is a place called Harpers Ferry, in West Virginia. The state of West Virginia was created from the Western counties of the State of Virginia that did not want to join the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Harpers Ferry is a national park today. A quaint Railroad Era town frozen in time. Absolutely charming. Except for the events that made it's name.
In 1859 in Harpers Ferry, a man named John Brown and a crew of committed abolitionists started the slide of the United States into Civil War, and so the eventual realization of their cause beyond their wildest dreams: the freeing of black slaves in the South, the Emancipation Proclamation. He would be called a terrorist today in every sense of the word. He was violent and a murderer in Kansas even before the events of Harper's Ferry. He was said to have mental problems. He was a devout christian fundamentalist intent on a holy war. And he was a visionary that changed the course of history by precipitating into action strong emotions that existed throughout society. From the University of Viriginia website:
On Sunday, October 16, 1859, between the hours of 10:00 and 11:00 P.M., John Brown, of Kansas notoriety, entered the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with eighteen men, took hostage some of its prominent citizens, and captured the federal arsenal. His intention, as he later made clear, was to liberate the slaves in the surrounding territory and form them into an army which would then free the Negroes throughout the South. Without an effective and detailed plan of action, Brown's "army" was surrounded on the afternoon of October 17 by local militia. After a brief skirmish, it was captured on the morning of October 18 by marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, of the United States Army.
(Historical side note: also prominent in capturing Brown was one up-and-comer named George Custer, of later Little Big Horn infamy in the wars against the Native Americans of the American Midwest).
Though Brown and some of his followers fought courageously, the raid, for all practical purposes, was a fiasco resulting in the death or torture of the insurgents, but its long-range effect on both northern and southern emotions far exceeded the wildest dreams of those who planned it. Accounts of the raid and the subsequent trial and execution of John Brown attracted national attention, and the event became a symbol to both sides in the Civil War.
Sound familiar anyone? I am no numerologist, but why not note that John Brown's crew of abolitionists was composed of 19 men, as was the the crew of September 11, 2001. The World Trade Center is our age's Harpers Ferry. Our age's Sarajevo. The cork on the top of an emotional bottle ready to burst. The emotions that are being uncorked all over the world right now, as you read, are under no one's control. No one can deny the potency of these emotions. No one can control what is under way.
I feel personally touched by recent world events, but my closeness to them brings me no more wisdom, just more anguish. And so I hate the hawks for being so arrogant and full of so much hubris and so much false confidence in America's ability to simply stride into a foreign country and right such complex wrongs. The hawks believe we can do whatever we want, completely dismissing the rightful anger fueled by a complete dismissal of national boundaries in a pursuit of dubious goals which may or may not increase the peace. I hate the hawks for not caring.
And I hate the doves for being so naive and blind to their complicit nature to evil men and regimes who bank on their weakness, who depend upon good men doing nothing, who depend upon their cowardice being there as they do truly evil, vicious things in the world. The doves believe that the struggle for human rights ends at the borders of whatever country they live in, no matter what happens outside of them. And so I hate the doves for not caring too.
And I hate myself for not knowing towards which instinct, hawk or dove, to err. But mostly, I am just sad for us all. Even the ideologues pushing their perspective agendas. They do not bother me anymore, they do not seem threatening. They look like bugs trapped in amber now. The ideologues on the right and on the left once seemed like ferocious monsters to me, their every word full of venom.
But now, their words just seem as bugs wings weakly struggling against the weight of the sweet honey of doubt they are trapped in. They do not know any more than any of us. I tell you: do not listen to the propagandizers, the liars, those with a hidden agenda, from either end of the ideological spectrum. No one knows what the right thing to do is. Everyone makes their best guess, and our opinions thereby diverge painfully and dramatically.
Kahlil Gibran, 1883-1931, was a Lebanese Poet, a mystic, revered throughout the Middle East. He wrote The Prophet in 1923, and won renown in the West as well. I think that his words speak for us all, in America, in Europe, in the Middle East, everywhere:
And one of the elders of the city said, "Speak to us of Good and Evil."
And he answered:
Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil.
For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?
Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts, it drinks even of dead waters.
You are good when you are one with yourself.
Yet when you are not one with yourself you are not evil.
For a divided house is not a den of thieves; it is only a divided house.
And a ship without rudder may wander aimlessly among perilous isles yet sink not to the bottom.
You are good when you strive to give of yourself.
Yet you are not evil when you seek gain for yourself.
For when you strive for gain you are but a root that clings to the earth and sucks at her breast.
Surely the fruit cannot say to the root, "Be like me, ripe and full and ever giving of your abundance."
For to the fruit giving is a need, as receiving is a need to the root.
You are good when you are fully awake in your speech,
Yet you are not evil when you sleep while your tongue staggers without purpose.
And even stumbling speech may strengthen a weak tongue.
You are good when you walk to your goal firmly and with bold steps.
Yet you are not evil when you go thither limping.
Even those who limp go not backward.
But you who are strong and swift, see that you do not limp before the lame, deeming it kindness.
You are good in countless ways, and you are not evil when you are not good,
You are only loitering and sluggard.
Pity that the stags cannot teach swiftness to the turtles.
In your longing for your giant self lies your goodness: and that longing is in all of you.
But in some of you that longing is a torrent rushing with might to the sea, carrying the secrets of the hillsides and the songs of the forest.
And in others it is a flat stream that loses itself in angles and bends and lingers before it reaches the shore.
But let not him who longs much say to him who longs little, "Wherefore are you slow and halting?"
For the truly good ask not the naked, "Where is your garment?" nor the houseless, "What has befallen your house?"
To my grandchildren, to all of our grandchildren: I apologize, I apologize on behalf of us all. For not being more brave in the fight against rogue states. Or, for not being more brave in the fight against arrogant warmongers. Only you will know where the real danger lies. I apologize for our human frailty, for not knowing the best way to proceed. I apologize for us not being omnipotent. We tried our best, but sometimes, our best is not good enough.
I am sorry, my grandchildren. In this brief interstice in time before and after a great incineration of bombs and war machines, I am sorry for the weakness of us all. It is so quiet before a storm. I cry for those thousands of innocents lost 2 years ago to madness, and I cry for the thousand more innocents who are yet to be consumed by the madness that is still just heating up.
In their eyes, the terrorists tore down the devil's horns on September 11th, 2001, and they have their 19 heroes. And indeed they are correct: they knocked on the head of evil himself. Horns or not, Americans or not, evil smiles on what they did, for what they did and the storm it helped awaken and churn will feed their devil, anyone's devil, for years to come.
As I said before, I am no impartial observer. I am a victim of terrorism, and my heart rankles at the images in my mind of people plunging to their deaths from burning towers, and my mind tells me there are only more victims of terrorism in the years to come.
Then Almitra spoke, saying, "We would ask now of Death."
And he said:
You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.
In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.
Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?
Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?
For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
I remember, and I will not forget, and I will indulge no ideological fool of any ilk who collectively act only to hasten the coming of the storm I have already glimpsed. The fringes are driving the agenda in many parts of the world today, and it will be many years before the center takes it from them, after they have harvested the madness they planted 2 years ago and continue to plant today.