The Looking Glass War

Sept 17th, 2001 Berkeley CA

“Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear at any rate–” exclaimed Alice after reading Jabberwocky in the Looking Glass world.

It is a fair description of what the situation appears to be in the US after last week’s terrorist attacks.

Terrorism is nothing new to the US which has always prided itself as a self-styled global cop. What is different is the scale of the terrorism the US has experienced in its own backyard–indeed its living room. This seems to fill the US heads with ideas and like Alice it does not quite know what they are. What is clear at any rate is the symbolism of the chosen targets and the effectiveness of the blow that the terrorists struck.

The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center symbolized the technological and economic domination of the globe just as much as the Pentagon symbolizes the military domination of the US. Using the US civilian air transportation system to hit at these two towering symbols of American hegemony only added insult to injury.

Somebody killed something, as a confused Alice noted. And while it is still unclear who that somebody is, what was killed is amply clear.

Destroyed forever is the illusion that technological superiority gives immunity from the greater reality of the world beyond its well-guarded borders. Gone forever is the comforting dream that a nuclear missile defense shield would protect against the actions of rogue nations. The age of being able to move freely about this vast country in the most sophisticated civilian air transportation system is also over.

The symbolism of the attack on the Big Apple is unavoidable and the mind tries to make sense of the devastation and its aftermath by recalling myths and legends. The US is at war; but it is a looking glass war where the image of the villain is created by the real hero standing in front of a mirror. And like a mirror, the greater the hero, the larger the villain appears to be–only with the mirror inverting the right and wrong.

Faustian Bargain

At a certain level of analysis, the US is directly responsible for the power of Bin Laden and his followers. There is an unbroken causal chain that stretches from the US through the CIA to Pakistan to the Taliban to Bin Laden. The US armed the Mujahideen and now the other half of the unholy bargain is done with the destruction of the trade center towers and a token bombing of the Pentagon.

In his quest for magical power, Dr. Faustus makes a pact with the devil in which he barters away his soul. It is a powerful tale of the dangers of hubris that compels the powerful to seek even more power and are willing to make deals with devils. Dr. Faustus squanders away many opportunities where he could have redeemed himself but didn’t. It appears that the US is all set to make a larger faustian bargain with Pakistan. It is possible that the other half of the latest deal with the devil will be a nuclear bomb in the financial district of San Francisco a few years from now.

It was another doctor, a Dr. Frankenstein, that created a monster with his own hands. As it turned out, it was a fatal mistake that Frankenstein made because the monster that he created finally killed Frankenstein. The legend of Frankenstein’s monster is re-told with sickening regularity. In India the most famous retelling involves the assassination of Indira Gandhi by the followers of Bhindranwale whom she helped create. One wonders whether on a global scale, the Western powers have not been playing Dr. Frankenstein with Pakistan.

There are certain facts that get buried in all the hand wringing and the breast-beating and the calls for a war against this ‘new kind of evil.’ First the fact that the US is the largest arms exporter in the world; second, the US has the greatest appetite in the world for the energy resources in the Middle East. To maintain its insatiable thirst for the Arab oil, the US is willing to wage wars. And to finance these wars, the US is willing to sell weapons to both sides of any conflict, as in the Iran-Iraq war.

Crazy Life

The events of September 11th marked an inflexion point that will launch us on a war path. We are responsible for what is to follow. As Dorothy Sayers wrote:

War is a judgment that overtakes societies when they have been living upon ideas that conflict too violently with the laws governing the universe…Never think that wars are irrational catastrophes: they happen when wrong ways of thinking and living bring about intolerable situations.

The native Americans, called the Hopi, have a word for the kind of life that we are living in this fast globalizing world. It is ‘koyaanisqatsi’ which means “a crazy life, life out of balance, a state of life that calls for another way of living.” Unless we examine the true causes of the evils that plague us, we are likely to destroy ourselves in our shortsighted pursuit of power and wealth. The Hopi have prophecies that speak to this:

If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.

Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.

A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans.

That is a chilling description of imagined intercontinental ballistic missiles raining nuclear hell on earth. But who could have imagined the twin towers of the World Trade Center disappearing forever in less than two hours one fine September morning?

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