I read something today
in a mailing list I follow. It was a snippet of a speech by George Bush.
Something about it got under my skin. Well, not so much the speech itself,
but the fact that someone thought the speech might have been written by
one of my favourite authors. Well, no, it's mostly the speech. Anyway here's
what was posted. Helprin is Mark Helprin, a remarkable author of fiction,
and a contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal.
> From Bush's speech:
> "We have seen their kind before. They're the heirs of all the
> murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life
> to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the
> will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and
> totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where
> it ends in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."
> Worthy of Helprin?
Maybe my memories are a bit sketchy. But wasn't it back in the early
'80s another President was referring to these same guys, the ones we were
then arming and training, as "Freedom Fighters?"
I'd like to know, because I'm a bit afraid that 20 years from
now maybe we'll be going through all this again. I'd kinda like to not
make the same mistake twice. Or however many times we've already made
it. Let's try and stop ourselves before we do it again. I mean, twenty
years ago we helped them because they were fighting, apparently, for Freedom.
Now, it seems, they've attacked the very foundation of it. I'm not sure
that their methods, other than sheer scale of the horror, are much different
than what we were training them to do. I bet a few people in the Pentagon
and the White House would've privately danced a jig if these guys had
somehow managed to bomb the Kremlin back when the Iron Curtain still stood.
But hey, those Russki's are evil. I mean, were evil. Poor bastards.
Well, nothing we can do about that. That's what they get. Deserve it.
Evil empire and all.
Geez. That was a bit sarcastic. Sorry. Guess this has got me
more riled than I thought. I'll try not to do that again, but obviously
I've got something to work out here. Bear with me?
Anyway, maybe we should at least be slapping ourselves on the
wrist for abandoning every value by propping up such totalitarians as
Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, paving the path
of fascism for their ascendancy. Should we say, "Never again!" I don't
know. I didn't think it was wise at the time. I said it then...like many
others. Not that it helped.
There was the Suharto thing with East Timor. Hush hush for years
and years. But we all saw how that turned out. Not that it hurt our trading
situation with Indonesia much, except we couldn't sell them attack aircraft
and heavy infantry equipment anymore. Lost a lot of money there. And it
hurt a bit when we finally got around to putting our money where our mouth
was with the apartheid lot. Well, those of us who actually participated.
That's OK. That's all in the past. We're going to root these
bastards out. Make the world safe for Democracy again. Just like the Israelis
have done in the Middle-East.
Wait a minute. The Israelis, owners of the best damn military
outside the US, and the best intelligence outfit anywhere. The Israelis
have utterly failed in all their attempts to wipe out terrorism in Israel.
And their terrorists aren't spread out all over the planet. They're generally
not more than an artillery shell away from any position within Israel's
plastic borders. They shoot a couple rockets from a village, so the Israelis
retaliate (need to get used to hearing that word a lot more) and practically
level the whole village with artillery. Collateral damage notwithstanding.
The next day, or the next week, the terrorists are back, lobbing mortars.
And even with all the draconian withdrawals of any semblance of civil
liberty, the terrorist violence only escalated.
This is just going to get ugly, I guess. Batten down the hatches,
damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead, don't shoot 'til you see the whites
Wait. WAIT. There's gotta be another way. I mean, last century
we had a "war to end all wars." And then promptly had another. Now we're
in a state of constant petty wars and revolutions and genocides all over
the planet. How do we stop this cycle if we keep jumping back on the merry-go-round?
But the terrorist thing is getting way out of hand.
We do have the hammer. We've got the military. We'll pound them
into submission. Smite them. Destroy them. Bomb them back to the stone
But the Soviets beat us to it. And the Taliban finished the
job. What's left?
Nuke 'em! Some military consultant said that on TV! It could
end up going nuclear!
What is that wisdom about hammers? If it's the only tool you've
got, every problem looks like a nail. Maybe. Maybe we need to put the
hammer away for a little bit. Maybe the problem we really have here is
a screw. Or something else. A hammer might not be much good for this.
The Israelis have the biggest one in their neighbourhood, and the enemy
just keeps coming back. I don't know, it's a bit like that gopher game.
You bop one on the head with a hammer and another pops up somewhere else.
There're always more gophers.
No, I think we have to use the hammer. At least a little. This
is a time that Lao Tse might agree is 'direst necessity.' But our language,
our reasons for using force are hateful ones. Retaliation. Retribution.
Revenge. And that is what we are seeking. "Satisfaction," as the euphemism
goes. Destroy them.
Let's ignore the moral and ethical implications for a moment.
Are we capable of obtaining it? Satisfaction? Is bin Laden worried? He
fought the Soviets to retreat, even though they occupied the country with
infantry and air power. He had to know this was coming. Are we walking
into a trap? Have we thought this out?
Maybe we need to look at this a bit more. I don't know. People
are saying scary things. Mark Helprin, of all people, in a Wall
Street Journal editorial refers to an "alien civilization." Who? The
terrorists? Are they a civilization? Did he mean the people of Afghanistan?
Iraq? The Taliban? Muslims? All of Islam? What does he mean by "alien?"
What? Muslims don't belong on this earth? Is that what he's saying? Should
we allow our own civilization to be characterised by the likes of Timothy
McVeigh and a bunch of fanatical Christian abortion clinic bombers, who
are also bent on destruction in some twisted sense of righteousness?
Helprin talks about strategic campaigns in all 'states of concern'
around the globe. Pakistan, Iraq, North Korea are such states, just to
name a few. There're more. Many more. In Africa, and Asia, and South America,
and the Caribbean and South Pacific. Wipe out their ability to aid or
harbour terrorism. Wipe out their nuclear and biological programs, he
said. Can we do that? What are the repercussions? We'd need American military
bases all over the globe, he says. A global military state? Is that really
what we want? Is that really what we need?
Scary things... The 'N' word! Christ! And on the radio the other
day, someone said,
I am a pacifist. I hate violence. But I don't know.
I think there's only one solution. We have to get not only the terrorists,
we have to kill not just them, but their mothers and fathers too, the
brothers and sisters and their children, their aunts and uncles, nieces
and nephews. We have to wipe out the entire gene pool.
I could tell this really broke him up. He didn't like saying
it. And I could tell something else. He meant it.
And the host, Rex Murphy no less, was stunned into silence.
Or was he stunned? Maybe even Rex felt that surge of anger. I don't know.
There's so much blind hatred floating around. Rage and rhetoric. Maybe
his cooler head prevailed?
What's wrong about that caller's plan is you can't stop with
the gene pool. I felt like shouting at him. No! For that to work, you'd
have to wipe out every soul sympathetic to the demands of the terrorists.
No. Wait. There's more. There will be those who are not sympathetic, but
who hate us every bit as much for their own reasons. (So many reasons!)
We'll have to wipe them out too. Some of them call themselves American,
or Canadian or Irish or French. But we'll smoke them out. You have to
obliterate the very ideas they have. We're not born with these ideas,
afterall. You're not genetically a terrorist, or a capitalist, a dove
or a hawk, a Christian or Muslim. Not really. You might be born into it,
but people lapse or convert all the time. We'd have to take out all the
people that think that way for genocide to make any sense. And then we'd
have to go after the ones who are inclined to start thinking that way
all by themselves. People who throw the tear gas back. People who willingly
submit themselves to tear gas and arrest in the name of protest.
Thought control. That's what we need. And we'd have the hammer
for backup. Why not? We're already talking about eradicating a civilization.
Wait. Wait. How can we militarily obliterate the idea of violence
as a means to an end without instructing soldiers in the unfortunate necessity
of using violence as a means to an end? And we can't stop there. No. We
have to teach this unfortunate necessity to their mothers and fathers,
their brothers and sisters and their children, their aunts and uncles,
nieces and nephews. If we don't teach them, they'll learn. When we bring
the soldiers back in body bags, they'll have to. We'll teach them first.
When we bring the dead soldiers back, we can say "it was an unfortunate
necessity." No. That's not good enough. We'll say, "she is a martyr."
No. That's not right. They call them martyrs. Our dead soldiers are heroes.
Yes. We'll say, "he's a hero." Yes. The soldier died ridding the world
of evil, combatting senseless violence. He killed many violent people.
My god. It's symmetrical. It is. Reciprocal. Retaliatory. Symmetrical.
What goes around...
Can it be good to use violence in such a way? How do we know
when it's good? Who is supposed to tell us? Our leaders? Is it OK to use
violence when you're a soldier supported by the taxes and votes of a democratic
people? Only then? Does that make sense?
Madness. With madness we'll eradicate madness.
The President said, from the very beginning, he said the terrorists
struck at freedom. They hate our freedom, he said. Maybe they do. I don't
know. Do they think of freedom the same way? Do they understand what we
Maybe. Maybe not. But what they struck at was the Pentagon and
The World Trade Center. Not the Liberty Bell. Not the Statue of Liberty.
Not the Washington Monument, or the Jefferson Memorial. The Pentagon and
The World Trade Center. Are they striking out at Freedom? I don't know.
I don't think so. Maybe they are striking out at power. A power that controls
destinies around the world. A power metaphorically and physically centred
in two places.
If I marched in Seattle, or at APEC in Vancouver, was I attacking
freedom? If I speak out against the military actions in the Gulf War and
in Serbia, am I attacking freedom?
Oh, Jesus. Don't lump me in with mass murderers. No, don't imagine
that I believe terror is a proper form of protest. I can't even imagine
a mind that could bomb buildings, killing thousands, or hundreds, or even
just one. It's unfathomable. It's a crime beyond all reasonable understanding.
But I can protest, non-violently. I can speak. I can write,
like I am now. I can urge others to listen, to reflect, to think about
this all a bit more. I can take C.S. Lewis' spiritual prescription and
look inward, at the anger, at the rage, rather than outward at the object
of it. Because I feel it. I do! My father flew for TWA. All his friends
flew for the airlines. Some haven't retired yet! I grew up with their
children. We practically grew up on passenger jets. What happened is unfathomable.
It was bizarre. Absurd. Watching it over and over and over. An abomination.
I am shocked and enraged.
And it's spreading. I am shocked by what has been done to us.
And I am shocked by what we are about to do. And I am feeling it. The
anger that comes from the shock. Letting myself feel it. And looking at
why. If I keep looking, look deeper, maybe then I will understand something.
I'm trying to understand. I'm trying.
There are many people who do not like what the WTC or the Pentagon
represent. They are among us. No, they are us. We are a little afraid
of that power too, even if it is, nominally, our own. We are called various
things. Anti-globalists, anti-free trade. Dissidents. And nasty names
as well. We demonstrated against the Gulf War. We have chanted, "Bring
down the WTO." But not like that. Not like that horror.
Still, are we attacking Freedom? No, we are expressing it. The
freedom my father defended in a NATO jet over the skies of West Germany.
The freedom my grandfather fought for in the Great War, the one that nearly
took his life and left him hobbling. The same freedom upon which I would
lay my life, were it threatened.
But is it threatened? Freedom? I don't know. Something is threatened.
What is it? Our safety? ...Security. Oh, man. Is that it? Security! A
security unique to us in North America. A trick of geography. Well. It
is a small world after all.
I have been in Belfast, at a time of relative calm. Had my bags
checked on my way into shops. I walked through a mall, and a shoe salesman
saw the long-hair and the large bag, then quietly took 3 long, cautious
steps back from the doorway, never for a moment taking his eyes off me.
Walked into Donegal Pass, and felt the oppressive malaise of bipolar power.
I watched uniformed men and women check every bus entering the malls at
Donegal Place for bombs. And in London's double deckers and at Heathrow,
they warn you not to touch any stranded bags. Here, in our little haven,
the airports warn not to leave bags unattended due to thievery; there
unattended bags are destroyed by the bomb squad.
We have been living in a dream world here. Isolated. Secure.
No longer. (Or were we really secure? I have been on the elevated in South
Chicago at night, and never felt more threatened. I won't go exploring
in any large American city without knowing my path will take me through
But it is not our fault. What did we do to them? We have done
Have we? Well, maybe we have. Nothing to deserve the calamity
that has befallen us. That was madness. I won't offer the perpetrators
any excuse. That is not protest; it's violent acting out on hatred. But
still perhaps we have done something wrong. Or maybe it's not so bad.
Maybe we just haven't done something right, or very well. Like when you
think you're doing a friend a favour, only to find out you had it all
wrong and ruined the friendship to boot.
I don't know. I don't want to get into all that. Not right now.
Too much anger and hate floating around to get anywhere. Round and round
in circles we'd go.
But I know this. We know no more about them than they know about
us. Perhaps less. Their lies about us; our lies about them. Us and them.
Familiar refrain? We thought that melted away with the Cold War. Ahh,
but we can teach 'them' something about us. We will. We will, because
we can. We use the UN when practical, the IMF when profitable and, when
all else fails, we teach them with force. Because we've got the biggest
goddamn sledge hammer on the planet and we're not afraid to use it. Even
if the problem might not be a nail.
And what will they learn about us? What lessons do bullets teach?
Ask the Israelis and Palestinians who have distilled their hatred for
each other to a bitter little pill they take daily. Ask the Northern Irish,
who recently have managed to shock even themselves with their own hatred.
And will we bother learning anything about this alien civilization as
we slay them? Did we learn anything about the Vietnamese? The gooks, as
we called them? Or are we only just now, in the last few years, curious
enough to even go back and think it over? Are we ignoring the cries of
millions of innocents in Iraq? Is it their fault Saddam Hussein runs that
country? Or ours?
I don't know. I don't know.
Well, I know one thing. Was Bush's speech worthy of Helprin?
At Helprin's raging rhetorical best, not quite. Bush may never top Helprin's
editorial for knee-jerk, racist (alien civilization?) reactionism, and
neither may Helprin.
I love Helprin for his lyrical prose, for the idealism expressed
toward love and beauty in all its forms. For his sense of humour and the
absurd...and the magical! But even in his fiction, something bugs me.
I can't quite put my finger on it, until I read one of his editorials.
They show a side of him that makes me nervous. No. It scares me. No. It
makes me angry. Very angry.
Eventually, I get over that. I get over the anger. And then
what? I'm left with a profound sorrow. Grief. I pick myself up, and get
on with it. Try to reassemble my humanity, regather my strength. It's
easy to act out on the anger. Like I just did. It even makes me feel better
for a while. But the good feeling usually dissipates, and leaves a residue.
A bad taste in my mouth.
Remember when George Bush senior led us into the Gulf? Kicked
some butt! Remember how good the nation felt about itself going in? Bush
was at the height of his popularity. But then it was over. And something
about the aftertaste just didn't sit well. Sick soldiers. Millions of
suffering innocents we try to forget about, even while sanctions continue
to press the screws down. It sure didn't taste like victory, safety or
honor. Were those illusions after all? Bush's war-time popularity waned
and he lost the next election.
I don't know. Maybe acting out on the anger doesn't leave something
behind. Maybe it never really gets at what made me angry in the first
place. And will a rant of a few thousand words change anything? Not likely.
Not any more than killing a few thousand terrorists. It makes me feel
like I'm doing something. But then nothing really gets done. Something
about that reminds me of the Dao De Jing. Yeah. Here it is. From chapter
The Master doesn't try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.
The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.
The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.
When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.
Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.
Actually, when I think of it that way it's kind of embarassing.
Then again, if I hadn't written this all down I might not have figured
this out. Maybe then I'd have done something, something I would really
Maybe there is another way. Gandhi stood up to the British Empire.
What did he do? He spun thread. Literally. Hardly a shot was fired. Well.
Not true. But hardly a shot was returned. Unheard of! Revolutionaries
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood up to brutally institutionalised
hatred and violence. What did he do? He talked about his dreams. Dreams
And then the unthinkable: the evil empire collapsed. We'd lived
in an Orwellian dread for decades. The Red Menace. It evaporated, almost
overnight. Why? An arms race? Cold War pressures? Economic failures? Maybe.
But maybe something else. The will of the people. We the people; something
we can understand. Something changed. The people persevered. Not with
force, but by standing still. By standing firm and yet yielding to external
forces. No World War III required. The time was ripe. Lech Walensa mobilised
an idea. It carried and spread. Like a virus. People began to believe.
Velvet revolutions. Like Gandhi had taught people to believe. Like King
had given people a reason to believe. And the people stood firm. No act
of violence or hatred could deter them. Implacable in their peace. Unstoppable.
Something happened in the wake of September 11. On one Friday,
the entire world stood together, united, in a moment of silence. Three
minutes of silence. We mourned. We cried. Even some who have hated us,
or with whom our relationship has been uneasy, they stood together, at
our side giving comfort and aid. Grieving not just for us, but with us.
I think it was because on one day in September we all learned
that terror is our common foe. Not the terrorist but terror itself. And
maybe there is an inkling spreading through more of us that terror cannot
be defeated by terror. That by engaging in the terror of war we act in
concert with the foe, not against it. By spreading terror, by retaliating
against it, thus participating in it, we undermine honor and security.
No. We abandon it. Make it an unobtainable illusion. We become terrorists.
I think that is the lesson we are beginning to learn. The time is right.
God, I hope so.
It doesn't mean letting terrorists get away with terror. It
must be made clear that terror is unconscionable. It's crucial to bring
terrorists to justice, the way Slobodan Milosevic has been brought to
justice. It may even become necessary to engage our military. But it should
be with the utmost restraint, as if arresting a criminal on a busy street.
We loathe the Jeffrey Dahmers, Paul Bernardos and Timothy McVeighs in
our own society. Yet we did not use indiscriminate force to bring them
to justice. We did not subject them to the same terror they subjected
their victims. We did not retaliate. We did not. The burden of proof remained
on the prosecution. That is how we define a just and humane society. It's
enshrined in our constitutions. We think of these rights as inalienable.
It is the essence of our security and our freedom. We must abide by that
sense of justice and honour whether inside our borders or on some distant
continent. We must, or risk becoming that which we hate, earning the hatred
of others, reinforcing it, giving it cause.