Friday, Jan. 18, 42 A.B.
The Way Things Stand Today
A shift seems to have occurred in the last week.
It became apparent a couple days ago when the front page of the Columbus Dispatch didn't carry any war-related stories - just a small box saying that the latest news about John Walker could be found inside on page 3. It became even more apparent this evening when ABC's World News Tonight didn't even mention the "War on Terrorism" or Afghanistan in passing until just before the first break some 11 minutes into the broadcast. A volcano in Africa, fall-out from the collapse of Enron, the conviction of yet another molesting priest, and various other stories all took precedence over what had been the biggest story for months.
It feels like I've stepped outside in the middle of a long, noisy party. The relative silence is such a sudden, stark contrast, it almost has a physical presence - like a heavy wet towel unexpectedly wrapped around my head....
Adding to the effect: Newsweek's current cover story isn't about Things for the first time since they began (Enron nudging aside Osama). And CBS's 48 Hours tonight is examining a popular diet and not Islam.
Have we really learned all we need to learn about terrorism, the war, other cultures, the religious mindset, the actions of our own government? Or are we simply getting tired 103 days after the bombing began in Afghanistan and 129 days after Sept. 11?
129 days... 3096 hours.... about one hour per person killed in the attacks....
I'm not suggesting that even more time needs to be devoted to re-airing video of the collapsing towers, or ever more ink needs to be used to tell all the stories of personal tragedies sure to move us to tears. It does seem to me, however, that the coverage is letting up on the gas less than halfway along on the road between unfiltered information and wisdom; and I fear that unless we push on until wisdom is reached, things will get worse before they get better.
Will we push on? I have my doubts. The fact that another major attack hasn't occurred despite our expectations that one would has perhaps allowed us to relax a bit. The war has become mere background noise even as the risks remain high and the issues beyond comprehension. Afghanistan may have been freed from the Taliban, but it has not been freed in the same sense that the Gulf War freed Kuwait of Iraqi invaders. The Taliban and their allies have a way of popping up again just yards from U.S. bases even as hundreds of U.S. troops are entering the jungles of the Philippines in a way which would have been unthinkable 6 months ago but now gets only a short mention on page 3.
Yes, things certainly have changed since Sept. 11, as everyone seems fond of saying. The real question is, Have we changed enough in response?
"[The Viet Cong] hope they can wear us out. And I really believe they'll last longer than we do. One of their boys gets down in a rut and he stays there for two days without water, food, or anything and never moves. Waiting to ambush somebody. Now, an American? He stays there about twenty minutes and, God damn, he's got to get him a cigarette!" - President Johnson to Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh, June 15, 1965, according to a transcript of secret tapes published in Newsweek Nov. 12, 2001
Somewhere along the line I read a story in the Dispatch which detailed a terrorist wannabe who applied to Osama's organization. Fine, they told him when he showed up. Go over into that empty house there and sit. The guy did so. When no one came to get him after several days, he left. "What's the deal?" he demanded to know. "We told you to go in there and sit. Yesterday morning, we saw you go to the window and look out. I'm sorry, but you failed the test."
The resonance between these two stories was eerie.
And yet... it's not American impatience which worries me, or the belief that Islamic terrorists are more disciplined. It's our cultural attention deficit disorder. And the way we allow our intellects to be distracted, even plowed under by those things which stir our emotions.
I had hoped that as emotions subsided with time, our intellects would expand to fill the space left behind. Instead, I fear we're filling that space with other feelings. Outrage over Enron's financial shenanigans. Outrage over molesting priests. Sometimes it really does seem as if we collectively have all the powers of concentration of a hyperactive 3-year-old....
Or - in my case - a hyperactive 2-year-old.
And yet certain under-reported stories have repeatedly caught my eye and sparked some reflection on a few deeper issues.
Just today, for example, I found this in my Rationalist International newsletter:
"The Taliban have gone, but Sharia law remains in Afghanistan. 'In this country all law comes from Islam', said the new justice minister Abdul Rahim Karimi, himself a scholar of Islamic law, in an interview. He condemned, however, the cruel practices of the Taliban, which were based on 'poor interpretation of Islam', and announced that Sharia in post-Taliban times was going to be applied properly. Ahamatullah Zarif, high court judge in Kabul, explains the fine details of the changes between now and then: The Taliban used to hang the victim's body in public for four days - we will only hang the body for a short time, say 15 minutes. Adulterers, both male and female, will still be stoned to death, but now only small stones are used. This gives the condemned person a chance to escape. If they are able to run away, they are free. The Taliban used to use large stones and hurl them with force. The chance to escape is only given to those who confessed their adultery. Those who refuse to confess and are condemned by a judge will have their hands and feet bound so that they cannot run away. They will certainly be stoned to death. The first stone is to be thrown by the judge, then court officials continue, and finally it is left to members of the public."
To what extent can a country with these practices really be our ally? On what grounds can we support these people and practices with our tax dollars and expect good to come of it?
A story towards the end of ABC's World News Tonight last night detailed the terrible plight of the mentally ill in Afghanistan. As you might imagine, many Afghans have been made terribly depressed, even psychotic by all they've been through the last 20 years. And yet Kabul is a city with just two practicing psychiatrists. The one shown by ABC was 73, obviously frail, and able to do no more for his patients than give them a cursory exam and hand out sedatives. This is a deep, continuing tragedy which it seems must be addressed if future acts of madness are to be prevented, and yet in all probability it will be little more than an unpleasant, one day story the vast majority of us will put out of our minds as fast as we can....
New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman wrote a piece this week which contained these lines: "It is impossible to exaggerate how broken Kabul, the capital, is. You know what ground zero looks like, where the World Trade Center once stood? Well, probably half of Kabul looks the same way.... You see sad and bizarre scenes in Kabul: a white donkey galloping down the main street right behind our car; a man with one leg peddling a bicycle; people washing a car with water from a port-a-porty; thousands of refugees crammed into the fetid old Soviet embassy, living in frigid temperatures with nothing but plastic wrap for windows. The central government has less money than most American network crews in Kabul, so it can't even pay salaries. 'When some ministers come to see me, they have to take a taxi,' said Lakhdar Brahimi, the senior U.N. envoy in Afghanistan.... We might as well be doing nation-building on the moon."
And yet if our nation building doesn't succeed better than the bombing campaign which apparently missed Osama and Mullah Omar, how can we expect to be safe from them, others like them, or fanatic ideologies which put all their faith in "holy" martyrdom? Unless we succeed in giving people hope and progress in this world, how can we keep them from yanking us violently with them over the precipice into the next?
Other issues, mostly eclipsed by these, nonetheless may prove even more significant in the long run.
Take opium, for example. Afghanistan is one of the best areas in the world for growing the poppies which produce opium and heroin. Although the Taliban weren't above selling it to fund their schemes, a Dec. 26 story in my newspaper told me that they managed to suppress 96% of the raw opium Afghanistan was producing as recently as 1999. Now, with the Taliban gone, production is expected to soar again. If the resulting opium and heroin ends up killing more people around the world than terrorists ever have, will we have had a hand in replacing a terrible evil with an even greater one?
Or consider this small story which appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of the Dispatch: "Pakistani ornithologists fear that birds normally migrating over Afghanistan during November and early December might have been harmed by the U.S. and British bombing campaign.... Not a single migrating waterfowl has arrived on Rawal Lake near Islamabad, a sanctuary normally teeming with the sounds of birds wintering there after their long flights from Siberia. Similar reports have been received from wildlife observers in key wintering habitats all over Pakistan...." How many birds would you be willing to sacrifice as your country goes about avenging your own death? How many wars in how many areas of the world can be waged before whole ecosystems are ignorantly and inadvertently brought down? How many species can we blithely ignore as we humans go about killing each other before we trigger ecological disasters with consequences far worse than anything our enemies are capable of inflicting upon us?
There was another, even smaller story in my paper recently about how the EPA was going to warn the Pentagon that the planes it has been flying over Iraq for a decade have been damaging the atmosphere. In the wake of Sept. 11, that warning appears to have gotten sidetracked. The damage to the atmosphere continues....
Lastly, there was a story in yesterday's paper about the way desperate Afghanis are plundering historic sites throughout their country in an attempt to turn ancient artifacts into cash. Statues, jewelry, coins, chunks of buried palaces and other items are all being dug up and sold for a few dollars to warlords who will make far more off them - and use the proceeds for far more questionable purposes than fending off starvation. Much information about the past is being lost in the process (since modern archeology often learns more from where and how an artifact is found than it learns from the artifact itself). Who can say how valuable that information might be? Who is so wise that he or she can confidently tell us, "This part of the past is a part we may safely trade away forever in exchange for the short-term gain of a few?" What good can come from a society driven to cannibalize its cultural heritage? And what does it say about us if we fail to recognize that such cannibalization is a very bad thing?
I resent having to think about all this. I resent having to record it here when I, too, would be rather watching pretty little pixels dancing across my screen instead.
Alas, I'd feel even worse if I didn't do at least this much....
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(©Now by a DJ Birtcher who is apt to confuse writing
about a problem with actually doing something about it)