Tuesday, September 12, 2006

the circle of caveats

We must be careful not to overstate the case. Let us not forget that in this situation it must be noted: nothing could be further from the truth. Because, as they say, it is the exception that proves the rule. Of course, rules are made to be broken and so, in this case, we must make allowances. For the time being, all we can state with certainty is that, given this set of assumptions, all things will be equal. Context is everything. Thus, this is not the final word on the subject. And yet, because of the foregoing doubts, we must be doubly sure. So, in light of current developments and taking stock of all our cultural preconceptions, the conclusion is neither obvious nor buried. It is conditioned by the very factors that condition us all. Beneath all this lies the substratum of unreason, which itself provides the basis for all knowledge. And lest we make too much of this, we must avoid the temptation of turning to speculation, to specious imagining, as it were. We must steer clear of that pathway at all costs—or at least in most instances. In that eventuality, the two sides are further apart than ever. And yet they are closer and closer. Bridging that gap is our task here, and yet we must be careful: a bridge built on quicksand will sink in a snap. It is best to avoid such constructions. Considering the preceding, we must put aside all pretense. The answer lies in the dispassionate pursuit of the truth, wherever that takes us. We must not fail to mention that, generally and in specific, the road is long and hard. Suppositions must be avoided and, conversely and in equal proportion, we cannot avoid them. A house of cards will not sink in the sand but a slight wind will blow it down. The situation, then, is perilous. However, we must press on. Indeed, it is only through that propulsion, that forward seeking movement, that we will find, ultimately (or penultimately), in the worst or best possible case scenarios, that unmistakable aura of glacial impenetrability. Then, and only then, given the parameters outlined above, will there be enough data to suggest a course of action (and its equal and opposite reaction) leading us to a state of wide-eyed suspicion. To put it simply: on or about or perhaps with or above all. Needless to say, this does not always hold true. Sometimes, it is true, it is untrue, depending on circumstances and freak accidents and natural disasters and acts of God. Next to nothing is inessential. We arrive, then, at the central conundrum—-and we must be very careful with words here so as not to state more than we actually know. To recapitulate: given the current state of knowledge, taking into account our biases, and rolling with the punches, we can draw one almost inescapable conclusion from our diverse and disparate researches into our subject. To wit: we must be careful not to overstate the case. Let us not forget that in this situation it must be noted: nothing could be further from the truth.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Other September 11ths

September 11th is more than the fifth anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City. Its resonance goes beyond simply being the day on which hijackers slammed planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, while another airplane was brought down in Pennsylvania field after its passengers battled for control of the cockpit.

For a generation of Chileans, September 11th is also the anniversary of the overthrow of Salvador Allende. It was September 11, 1973 when the armed forces, minions of American might, moved against the popularly elected Socialist president of Chile, attacking the presidential palace in Santiago and plunging the nation into decades of brutal dictatorship under which thousands lost their lives. And September 11th is also the anniversary of the day in 1777 when George Washington lost the battle of Brandywine, which allowed the British to storm into our fledgling nation’s capital, Philadelphia, two weeks later.

Every country, and every era, has its 9/11, even if it doesn’t fall on September 11th.

• In Rwanda, it’s April 6th, the day in 1994 when the Hutu majority began the rampage that ultimately claimed the lives of between 800,000 and 1 million Tutsi citizens.
• In Lebanon, perhaps it’s September 16th, the day in1983, when a Christian militia, acting with tacit Israeli approval, invaded refugee camps and began killing thousands of Palestinians. Or perhaps it’s July 12th, the day just two months ago when a Hezbollah war party raided Israel and took several soldiers hostage, to which Israel responded with a month-long bombing campaign and ground invasion that killed perhaps 1,000 people.
• In Argentina, it might be June 20th, the day in 1973 when fascists opened fire on a crowd of 3 million awaiting the return of Juan Peron.
• In South Africa, it might be March 21st, the day in 1960 when police fired on demonstrators in the small town of Sharpeville who were protesting the apartheid pass laws, killing 69 and wounding several hundred. It was the start of a three-decade campaign, in which thousands of innocents gave their lives so that an entire people might be free.
• In Mexico, it might be October 2nd, the night in 1968 that came to be known as the Tlatelolco Massacre because several hundred demonstrators were killed in Mexico City.
• In Sarajevo, it is April 5th, the day in 1992 that the Serbian siege began. The siege that strangled the city lasted almost four years and took more than 12,000 lives.
• For Irish Catholics, it might be January 30th, Bloody Sunday, the day in 1972 when British troops opened fire on civil rights protesters in Derry, killing 26, six of whom were children and five of whom were shot in the back.
• For Armenians, it’s April 24th, the day 91 years ago when Turks started the campaign that led to an estimated 1.5 million Armenians being exterminated.
• For Jews, it’s perhaps November 9th, 1938, known as Kristallnacht, when the Nazis ordered attacks against Jews, one of the most severe salvos in a campaign that systematically killed millions.
• And in Iraq, perhaps, it is both July 16th, the day in 1979 when Saddam Hussein took power, and April 9th, the day in 2003 when U.S. forces took control of Baghdad. No decent citizen of the nation had any inkling then that the U.S. occupation would lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents in what seems a brutal civil war.

So, yes, on this September 11th, let us honor the memory of the thousands who lost their lives five years ago in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. Let us celebrate the fidelity of the tens of thousands who lost loved ones and close friends that painful sun-drenched morning. Let us witness once again our fear and our fervor. But let us also remember that this day we hold in common memory is not exceptional. It is one of a series of days that remind the world of horror.

Senseless suffering is, sadly, universal. And so is the heroism of ordinary people who, despite their own pain and horror, react with incredible bravery and humanity, risking their lives to help their neighbors live on. Let us take this day to honor all victims of organized terror, of senseless violence, of collateral damage, of thoughtless invasion and destruction around the world. And let us honor, too, those patriotic world citizens who demand an end to the madness.

Monday, August 28, 2006

the primitive streak

"Communication is fatal to a relationship," I say.
She squints.
"You got to admit, the truth can be really bad—sometimes."
Her jaw goes slack. Her tongue comes out. She mimes puking.
"Every so often. Occasionally."
Now she’s glaring.
"All right, all right. Almost never."
I know as I’m saying all this that she hates me—-first for saying it, second for backing down, third because I was right and we just proved it.
She purses her lips. Bloodless, that’s what she is. If I slit her throat, nothing would come out. That’s why we’re together. I’m sure she thinks the same about me.
I try again.
"What I meant to say was communication is fetal."
She warms to this.
"Primitive," she says.
We’re on the subway, whispering to each other in the sexiest voices we can muster. It’s a game we play.
"Do you know," she breathes hot on my ear, "that when the sperm fertilizes an egg, it forms a smear. And that smear—-biologists call it the primitive streak—-ultimately becomes everything. Nervous system, backbone, sensory body, brain, consciousness, you, me, us."
And I say: "Kind of like a bug caught in the windshield wipers."
Again the thing with her lips. Her eyes blaze.
"You," she hisses. "You’re always cutting everything down, cutting me down. Is nothing real?"
I love it when she hisses.
"You got it, babe. Make-believe is best."
She shows her teeth. "I could kill you," she whispers sweetly.
My turn to do the lip thing.
"Right now," she confesses. "I could, you know."
I smile.
"Thank you," I whisper.
"Fuck you," she snarls.
We ride in silence a bit. We’re going to the hospital, to see my father in the cancer ward. He’s fading. I can feel him leaving me-—this man who spent so much of his life trying to do right by me, except I never let him. The human condition in action.
"Ah, my little devil," I say, turning to her.
She pokes me in the ribs.
This is love, I suppose.
She pokes me again.
"Listen buster," she says. Her eyes are swirling agates.
I think of my father, every breath a pain. But his eyes are like rocks at the bottom of a lake. They seem so close, so defined. I think of what they will be like when he’s dead, insensitive to my poking.
"Play," she says.
"I don’t want to," I whisper.
My father can hardly keep food down. But he tries every day. He tries to eat, he tries to smile. I can see the effort in his eyes.
"What’s going on here," she purrs in my ear, "is a lack of communication."
I shrug.
"You think I’m kidding?"
"I think my father’s dying."
"That’s your excuse for everything."
"Here’s your excuse for everything," I whisper back. "You are an exciting woman."
Around us, people flow on and off the train. Maybe one of them knows I’m lying.
My father, I think. My father knows. He would look up at me and wink. A little complicity please. When you’re finally confronted by ultimate things, there’s not much else to say. If we’re to go on living, we don’t acknowledge them. But if we’re to die, then truth can be potent stuff. And yet, as soon as I think this, I know it’s a lie. None of us, none of us can stand the truth. No matter how bad off we are, we rely on patent medicines, nostrums, evasions, tones of voice, mumbo jumbo, lies.
She smiles. I can see the edges of her dog teeth. She hates the truth, too.
I take her hand and we leave the train to go and be with my father for a few moments before visiting hours come to a close.
I can feel her fingers tighten as we get closer to his room.
The oppressive air. The finality, the bottom-line truth in every twist of the corridor.
When we walk in, he manages both a smile and a wink.
"How’re the lovebirds," he says.
She squeezes my hand and I stand there exposed.
I sit on the edge of the bed and take his hand as well, feeling it surprisingly small in my palm, and we stay that way for a moment, all of us holding hands, as if we’re praying.
I could kill him. I could kill her. I could kill the whole world.
But, in the end, I never will.
I’m a collaborator. I belong with the living.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

the people of the book

My mother touched the knife blade. The rabbi was in the corner by the crib, muttering. And far away, my father hovered by the TV. There are some things a man can’t watch.

Sam, my mother said. I think it needs more edge.

My Dad tore himself away from the football game and felt the blade. He nodded slowly.

The stone was doubled-wrapped in baggies and paper towels that were held tight by two rubber bands. My father laid out the layers on the counter. He put a drop of oil on the stone and massaged it with his finger.

Hey Irm, he said.

My mother handed him the knife. He laid the edge carefully against the stone and feathered the blade against the silky surface.

My father worked both sides of the blade. Then he flipped the stone over to the finer side. Again the application of oil and the light scraping of steel on stone. Finally he tested the edge. He drew a sheet of paper from the drawer and, with almost no effort, slit it in half.

My mother nodded. The rabbi shrugged.

My father wiped the blade and the stone with an old towel. He then rewrapped the stone in its many layers and stowed it back in the recesses of the closet.

Then they all approached the crib. My little brother was sleeping and making small satisfied noises. He had just been fed and his face was bloated and red. The rabbi took my brother’s lolling head in his hairy hands and pried his jaws open. He started a soft prayer. My brother’s tongue was white with milk and moved forward and back with his uneven breath.

Suddenly, the rabbi ended his dovening. My father turned away. My mother advanced towards the crib, holding the knife high overhead and then brought it down in a gentle chop in the ritual circumcision of the tongue.


Monday, April 03, 2006

the mosque at al vitah

My father always talked about the mosque at Al Vitah.

We would visit it next year -- next year, always next year. And then he was old and walking with a cane and he didn't remember the mosque at Al Vitah. I asked him about it and he seemed on the verge of something, like a light went on, but then he lost it.

He was always a proud man, proud to be from Beirut, proud of his Savile Row suits, but in his last years he escaped all that. He immersed himself in Beethoven. All he wanted to know. Beethoven. Like somehow Beethoven's demonic last harmonies mattered.

He was absorbed in the Diabelli Variations when I asked him about the mosque at Al Vitah. "Listen," he said after his short pause of memory. "Listen to the stupid little theme, and then the way Beethoven blows it apart in the first variation. Now that's inspiration."

I don't remember what was so special about the mosque at Al Vitah. He never really talked about it specifically. It was always in comparison, like when we saw the Chagall windows in the little church in Pocantico Hills, north of New York City. He stood and looked at the stained glass, all of us uncertain about what he would say, this cultured Muslim man in a shrine to Christianity, facing art made by a Jew. Then he nodded. "Nice," he said, "but nothing compared to the mosque at Al Vitah."

He died without ever having been back to the mosque at Al Vitah.

Though I was born in Lebanon, we came here to my father's post at the United Nations when I was scarcely two. So I'm more American than Lebanese. I like McDonald's and Pepsi. Chick peas and tahini were an acquired taste.

Still, as my father lost his mind, and as he turned more and more towards Beethoven, my thoughts turned more and more to the mosque at Al Vitah. I planned a trip as soon as my father's condition stabilized. We would go back to Lebanon the whole family making a pilgrimage. And, of course, we'd see the mosque.

"Count me out," my sister said. "I won't go anywhere with them." My mother, too, in her own way was less than cooperative. "I appreciate the idea," she said, lapsing into French, "but what is there for us to do there?"

Still, I planned. I had a travel agent working out all the details. Nothing threw a monkey wrench into the works -- nothing, that is, except my father's death, an unfortunate aspect of his personal jihad over losing his mind. The doctor couldn't say whether disease had overtaken him or whether he had simply lost the will to fight it. Whatever. I know what I think. I think he gave up that day he could not remember the mosque. It was that simple.

Though none of my family wanted to go, I decided to make the trip to Lebanon as my personal memorial for my father.

But the funny thing was, when I got there, no one knew of any mosque at Al Vitah. Or even a city named Al Vitah.

There was a shrine at Al Vitry, but it was done up new, in garish marble slabs, and could not have been the one my father knew. There was a mosque at Hal Kourtah, a very sacred spot, said to stand where seven martyrs had been burned rather than renounce their faith, but it was 160 miles from Beirut and didn't seem like the kind of place my father would have liked. Dozens of peasants streamed into the squat stone building, leading sheep and goats to have them sanctified, made fruitful, made holy. There was no mark of beauty about the mosque or the ceremony.

This, then, was what I pondered over drinks on the plane home: the miraculous (if I can use that word) disappearance of my father's favorite place, the mosque at Al Vitah.

My sister laughed when I told her.

"Oh, shows you never to believe anything the old goat ever said." She's a modern woman. No veils for her.

My mother wrinkled her already wrinkled upper lip. "He never took me there," she said. "Now let me show you the lovely icon I bought across the street from Bloomingdale's."

I continued to teach -- for that is what I do, teach philosophy (western, mostly, to my father's great shame). Sometimes, in the evenings, I pour myself a scotch, put on the Grosse Fugue, and attempt to discover inspiration.

But of the mosque at Al Vitah, nothing.

I have an idea about it now -- that mosque that exists only as a memory of a memory, my recollection of my father's faulty image -- and it goes like this: we all, every man, every person, have our own mosque at Al Vitah, a place we go to when we need to go to a place that is ours alone.

That was why my father was right to die. When he lost that place, he lost himself.

And that's its true meaning. Each man's mosque at Al Vitah is the only thing worth fighting for. All other battles are pointless. All other wars are unimportant. I am a Western man, steeped in tolerance and multiculturalism, but if someone, anyone--one of my students, for instance--threatened to burn the mosque at Al Vitah, or bomb it, or damage it in any way, I know I would fight to the death. For the mosque at Al Vitah is my jihad and I can never let anything or anyone separate me from that battle.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

the air of atrocity

It is the air of atrocity
An event as ordinary
As a president

A plume of smoke, visible at a distance,
In which people burn.
--from Of Being Numerous, George Oppen, 1968

Monday, March 20, 2006

of monuments, money and the fall of man

The Paradise Post would have had a field day.
Evicted From Eden!
heavenly host pushes primeval pair from Paradise;
celestial court says pilfering fruit violates terms of creation

There’s trouble in Paradise.
The world’s first residents were ejected from Eden yesterday. Adam and Eve, the original homo sapiens, were pushed from their house by a phalanx of angry angels and ordered never to return to the garden they have called home since six days after the creation of the universe.
The heavenly marshals arrived at dawn with papers stating that Adam and Eve were being dispossessed for taking fruit from a tree at the center of the garden, and stood guard as workers tore down the couple’s stick, mud, and grass dwelling.
Standing silently before the remnants of the hut he had built for his family—the first human habitation ever constructed—Adam grunted and pointed at his wife when asked why they had been sent packing.
“This is absolutely unfair,” Eve said as she picked through the debris for objects that could be used again. “The garden was almost abandoned when we got here. The idea that anyone owns this land, or the fruit on the trees, is insane. We have lived here almost since the beginning of time.”
As night fell, the couple was at work on a new structure just outside the garden. They said they hoped to be moved in before sunrise.
In addition to eviction, the judicial commandment against the couple also called for the earth to be cursed for all time. The owner of Eden, an absentee landlord, could not be reached for comment.
The fall of man was a landlord-tenant dispute.

I thought of this over the past week as I read about the clash between politicos, a public agency, and a developer over the future of Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center towers, which collapsed in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on New York City on September 11, 2001.

We the people of New York (and the nation) are the victims of a fundamental category error. We are acting as if real estate development is in the public interest.

Of course, that’s what developers and public agencies enamored of real estate would have us believe. It’s what they say in their carefully couched press briefings and public appearances.

I’ve got one word for them: Fuhgeddaboudit.

A developer exists for one reason only: to make money on his deals. I don’t care what a mensch developer Larry Silverstein, who holds the lease on the Trade Center site, may be in his private life. The guy is in the business of making money. That’s why he pursued double indemnity for his insurance settlement. And it’s why he’s playing hardball now.

Similarly, a public agency doesn’t get involved in real estate development unless it, too, is interested in money. That’s why the Port Authority started planning to build the towers back in the 1960s. The idea: bring high end offices to the lower end of Manhattan Island, prime the pump, make money (and, in the process, destroy Radio Row, a great and historic area whose only sin was that it offered limited opportunities for making maximum profits.) And that's why they want to rebuild now.

Here’s a quote from Reuters about last week’s squabble: “At issue is who will build which skyscrapers at the site to replace the lost 10 million square feet (930,000 square metres) of lost office space, what rent to charge, and how to divide up Silverstein's $4.6 billion in insurance proceeds.” In addition, the news agency wrote, “A deal is crucial to Silverstein getting $3.4 billion in tax-exempt Liberty Bonds, half each from the state of New York and New York City, which he needs to finance the project.”

This is not about September 11, 2001. It is not about tragedy or terrorism or heroism or consecrating ground that served as a mass grave for 2,749 innocent people, or anything remotely humane. It is about buildable square feet. The redevelopment of the World Trade Center site is nothing more than a real estate deal. And real estate deals are not about higher human emotions. They are about profit.

If the public wants a memorial or, indeed, anything that upholds values more lasting than the Almighty dollar, then let’s take this parcel out of the hands of real estate types. The fall of man hinged on much less.

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Law of War and Peace

A centuries old text may not seem like the best tool for present-day political analysis. But when I cracked the covers of The Law of War and Peace, by the Dutch Renaissance scholar Hugo Grotius, originally published in 1625, his words seemed hyper-modern and specially constructed to address the situation that exists right now in Iraq.

Unlike most of today’s public figures, Grotius did not glorify military matters. He understood that there was little noble about armed conflict. “War,” he wrote with characteristic candor, “is not one of the honest crafts. Rather it is a thing so horrible that nothing but absolute necessity or true affection can make it honorable.”

In his tome, Grotius tackled a thorny ethical issue that dogs us in Iraq: can a war be considered just? If there’s to be an answer, Grotius argued, the reasons for the war had to be fully aired. This is because the consequences of pitched battle “are so grave as to require more than plausible reasons for war. The reasons should be evident to everybody.” This ancient analyst said it simply wasn’t right for a nation to go to war without persuasive evidence of an enemy’s wrongdoing: “A man who knows his cause is just but who has not documents sufficient to convince the possessor of the injustice of his position may not on that account legitimately go to war.”

The bogus claim about yellow cake from Niger? The spurious story that Saddam Hussein had a chemical arsenal that could be deployed in 45 minutes? The non-existent connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein? There seems little doubt: to Grotius, these busted justifications would make this war illegitimate.

The Law of War and Peace also offers some clear-headed ideas about occupation. Here, Grotius quotes the great Latin orator Cicero: “If, under the pressure of circumstances, individuals promise something, even to an enemy, their promise should be kept exactly.”

The U.S. has promised lots of things. We promised Iraqis a better life, with stability, services, security, civil rights and democracy. Even the Bush Administration has acknowledged that we haven’t yet succeeded in keeping those promises. We promised the world that we would respect human rights. Yet we have suspended habeas corpus (the right of a prisoner to confront the charges against him or her, which has been on the books in English-speaking lands since at least 1305), we have maligned the Geneva Conventions, which ban torture of prisoners, as quaint and outmoded, and we have put forth the notion that our government can spy on citizens without a warrant. We promised that we would tell the truth even if it wasn’t pretty. Yet our leaders continued to declare that we do not torture even as the photos from Abu Ghraib and descriptions of conditions in the prion at Guantanamo were beamed across the planet. We promised that we understood the responsibility of taking over another country. Yet, to this day, no major commander or administration official has accepted responsibility for our shortcomings in Iraq.

Small wonder, then, that we are increasingly viewed as occupiers rather than liberators—even by people who suffered under Saddam’s brutal regime. And small wonder that the insurgency seems to be able to operate with impunity, no matter how many thousands we throw in jail. As it says in the Bible (Proverbs 18:19), “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city.”

March 19th will be the third anniversary of the day we began the bombing of Baghdad. We tore through the country. By April 9, 2003, American Marines were helping Iraqis topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. And on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush rushed onto the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to announce the end of major combat operations. In the three years of this war, more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers have died and more than 16,000 have been injured. More than 30,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the conflict began.

Grotius had strong words to characterize a leader who wades into war without sufficient justification, words that apply to George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair, and all the others who brought us to this point: “A king who goes to war for light causes, or in order to exact unnecessary penalties involving serious risks, is responsible to his subjects for repairing the damage resulting therefrom. For he committed a true crime, if not against his enemy, yet against his own people, by dragging them on slight excuse into so dire a calamity.”

--Robert Neuwirth