Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Evil's Second Coming

Note: This reaction to 9/11 piece was originally published by STYLE Weekly on May 15, 2002.

Washing in on what poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) might have called a “blood-dimmed tide,” the specter of evil suddenly emerged from the periphery of modern life eight months ago. In the blue skies of the time before 9/11’s sucker punch, the notion of pure evil had an Old World air about it. Absolutes, such as good and evil, had no seat at the table of postmodern thinking.

After 9/11, a generation of Americans suddenly learned a bitter lesson: Evil never went away. It had gone out of style, as a concept, only because times were so easy. Living in a land of plenty, it had gotten to be a pleasant habit to avert our eyes from evil-doings in lands of want.

The last American president to get much mileage out of the word evil was probably Ronald Reagan, with his “evil empire” characterization of the USSR and its sphere of influence. Now, 20 years later, we have a president who sees “an axis of evil” — an alleged phenomenon that puzzles most of the world’s leaders, or so they say.

George W. Bush apparently has little use for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stalwart advice to a nation in need of a boost in confidence — “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Bush chooses to color-code fear rather than urge his people to rise above it.

The propagandists of the Bush administration have been successful in cultivating the public’s anxiety since September. Whether that’s been done for our own good remains to be seen. Perhaps it has, but this much is clear now — all the official danger alerts about nuclear power plants, bridges and crop-dusters have been effective in keeping most of the natural questioning of the administration’s moves at bay.

To hear Attorney General John Ashcroft tell it, the architects of 9/11 are the personification of the most virulent form of evil ever known. Although much of the evidence that would establish his absolute guilt in connection with 9/11 remains a state secret, Osama bin Laden is said to have shot to the top of the chart. Forget about Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin and Pol Pot. They were amateurs.

Then again, evil, like beauty, has always been in the eye of the beholder.

Wasn’t it evil to deliberately dump tons of potent pesticide into the James River during the ’70s to make a greedy buck? Once it was in Virginia’s water, it turned out that Kepone wasn’t much different from a bio-terror agent in the same water.

Although it was first reported that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people was likely to have been the work of Middle Eastern terrorists, such wild speculation soon fizzled in the face of the facts.

With the news seeping out of the cloisters about child-molesting priests and the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-ups, whose betrayal was more evil, the molester or the higher-ups who hid and facilitated his crimes?

Whether evil exists in some pure form, off in another dimension, is not my department. What’s known here is that in the real world evil is contagious. Lurking in well-appointed rooms or hiding in caves, evil remains as it ever was — ready to spread.

None of this is to suggest that al Qaida shouldn’t be put out of business. It isn’t to say that knocking the Taliban off was a bad idea. There’s no question here about whether the United States should protect itself from the networks of organized terror that are hell-bent on destroying the modern world.

Still, today’s evil is the same evil our forefathers faced in their wars. Evil hasn’t changed; technology has. With modern weapons in their hands, the fanatics of the world have the potential to wreak havoc like never before.

What has changed is the extent to which the hate festering in the souls of the world’s would-be poobahs and their sociopathic followers can be weaponized. It’s worth noting that the weapons of mass destruction that are scaring us the most were developed during the arms-race days of the Cold War by the game’s principal players.

So another question arises, who is more dangerous to civilization, the guys who spent their treasure to weaponize germs, or the guys who want to steal the stuff and use it on somebody?

Decades ago this was a concern expressed by some in the disarmament movement. Its scary what-if scenarios always included the likelihood that the super powers would eventually lose track of some of their exotic weapons. Looking back on it now, it seems obvious that there was no way any government could keep all that material locked away from the greed and hate of determined free-lancers.

A man with a briefcase-style nuclear device may be no more evil than a man armed with a knife. Either danger could kill you just as dead. Those of us who feel connected to others know which one we should fear the most.

The “rough beast” of dreadful evil “slouching towards” us is traveling on the back of technology of our own making. While we watch out for organized terrorists in the short run, with a handy color code to guide us, it’s time to think more seriously about how to get rid of a lot of very dangerous weapons in the long run.

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Brer Rabbit Gambit

Brer Rabbit by illustrator A.B. Frost.

So does President Barack Obama want to bomb Syria, or not?”

Maybe. Or maybe Obama wants to be slowed down and prevented by Congress and other nations from bombing Syria, just long enough to force a better solution to this dilemma than bombing Syria.

The wily Commander in Chief might have said, "Please don’t make me NOT bomb Syria."

The wiliest reverse psychologist of all-time, Brer Rabbit, would have understood the strategy immediately.

Note: for anyone who could have a fit of despair over the perceived inappropriateness of mentioning a Uncle Remus character and Obama in consecutive paragraphs, perhaps this commentary about current events is one you should skip reading.

Back to Syria, a country I’ve never see with my own eyes and one I know very little about: Since the news about the use of chemical weapons in Syria surfaced last month Obama has had a nasty problem on his hands. At this point, the most nettlesome aspect of it seems to be the distinct possibility of it drawing the USA into killing more people in the Middle East -- all in the name of seeking peace.

Perhaps the only good thing about this new problem, so far, is that it has shoved the news about Republicans in Congress playing games with the debt ceiling and a government shutdown off the front page. Which is one of the clues to what Obama may be up to with his threats to punish Syria's wicked dictatorship for its supposed use of chemical weapons.

Syria’s President Bashar Hafez al-Assad denies it; evidence be damned, he’s sticking to his story. Well, I have no idea how good the “proof” is that makes Assad look like he’s lying through his dictator teeth. Time will tell.

When it comes to provocations for war American presidents have been lied to, and they've occasionally told lies. So, I can’t completely dismiss the idea that somebody other than Assad, himself, is actually responsible for this alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. Still, as it stands, today, many people are saying America must launch a batch of cruise missiles to blow up selected targets in Syria.

Obama says a “red line” has been crossed. He says he feels compelled to protect a "norm." While he stands ready to launch the missiles, as a commander in chief, as a president, Obama says he wants Congress to authorize the proposed strike in Syria ... and own whatever it leads to down the road.

Why?

My guess is the saber-rattling Obama is working a Brer Rabbit Gambit. It’s almost a reverse Brer Rabbit Gambit, in that he‘s saying he has to bomb Syria, even though he doesn’t want to, so don’t hold him back ... when being held back is exactly what he wants.

Yes, I'm saying Obama wants Congress to delay the bombing run. And, he wants other countries to weigh in, to try to find alternatives to bombing Syria. Russia already has.

Moreover, Obama wants to make people all over the world think seriously about the use of chemical weapons and what should be done about it. Like, is there a damn “red line” about using certain weapons of mass destruction, or not?

Obama wants to jerk billions of heads up out of the sand and make all of us bystanders look at this very complicated situation. And, it says here that most of all, Obama wants to drive Assad out of Syria.

On top of that possibly-brilliant-but-definitely-risky stalling maneuver’s effect on the prospects for avoiding another war for America, it is also tying the Republicans in knots. Some of them are in the process of making fools out of themselves, yet again, and perhaps weakening their own power within the ranks of the GOP.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying any of this is a slam dunk. But if Assad suddenly decides he really ought to get out of Syria, before the missiles come and drastically weaken his power to scare his many enemies, it won’t surprise me all that much. He’s seen what happened to other dictators who stayed too long at the party.

Right now, Assad might be able to go into exile in Russia and take a billion dollars with him. But the clock is ticking. Maybe the late-breaking notion of Assad allowing the UN, or some international body, to take his WMD toys away from him is worth pursuing. Like, if we get to take possession of most of his supply of deadly gas and haul it off, to be destroyed, then nasty old Assad STILL has to get out of town, that might work, too.

No matter how long Assad chooses to stay, to make the Brer Rabbit Gambit work at this point America's trickster president has to make it look like he’s got an itchy trigger finger. Then he has to let the various actors play their roles, and wait…

Note: This was written before Obama’s 9 p.m. address on this crisis, so I may soon want to take all of this back.