Friday, September 16, 2011

Words from the Less Than Wise

Concurrent with the worldwide outpouring of sober remembrance and renewed sympathy on the recent ten year anniversary of 9/11 terrorist attacks on America came also some rather zany viewpoints from various corners of the globe.

From Malaysia, for instance, comes the notion that the collapse of the two towers of the World Trade Center could not possibly have been caused by the explosive collision of two enormous, fuel-filled jetliners. No. There must have been something else, something more reliably destructive behind the actual event.

Now whether this Malaysian source has some intimate experience with the effect caused by fuel-filled jetliners colliding with tall buildings, I do not know. He did not mention any such knowledge, but I suppose this could have been a personal oversight, or perhaps a copy-reading or printing error. Suffice it to say that the man has been convinced, ever since that fateful day (or so he says), that two enormous jetliners filled almost to the top with jet fuel could not have quite the destructive effect that we saw on 9/11.

There must have been something else.

His theory? Why, that the building had been previously set up for demolition, just as you see when old buildings are demolished to make way for new ones. Of course, for this to happen certain appropriate authorities had to have been aware beforehand so that the thing would go off well, and moreover would appear to be the result of two jetliners flying into the buildings. Who were these authorities? Well, shadowy people for sure, dishonest, manipulative, quite necessarily evil people who wanted to manufacture a reason for the United States to attack Afghanistan, and later Iraq. Obviously this could not possibly have been accomplished without a preceding terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. And on the Pentagon. And on farmland in Pennsylvania.

Golly, even former President George W. Bush could have been involved. Very likely was. And our Malaysian source says as much.

For my own part, I must admit to being unclear on a few points of this theory. Why, for instance, was it deemed necessary (by the President and his co-conspirators) for the towers to be all the way flat? Would not the death and destruction caused by the planes have been sufficient? And what about the multiple truck-sized bundles of explosives and miles of fusing and wiring that attend demotions such as these? How were these kept from the view of janitors, engineers, electricians, policemen, firemen, and pedestrians, not to mention the thousands of employees in the World Trade Center?

Oh, and if it was really President Bush who was behind this terrorist attack, why did Osama bin Laden take credit for the thing?

I just don’t get it.

Frankly, I suspect that a more revealing investigation, and one that might arrive at more useful conclusions, would be an inquiry into the psychology of the fanciful notions we so often see applied to real life events. What is behind it? Is it misplaced guilt? Is it selective blindness? Is it an aversion, either willful or pathologic, to the simple truth?

Moving on.

It has been suggested from other quarters that God Himself was behind the destruction on 9/11 and meant it as a punishment for the imperialist, morally bankrupt American nation. That’ll show ‘em. But again, I would have to wonder why God would choose those particular 3000 for the death sentence. Was there something about that collection of 3000 individuals that was particularly indicative of American imperialism and moral bankruptcy? The method seems kind of random and unfair--two qualities that I find hard to ascribe to God.

Let us finish then with a piece of humour from Al-Qaeda itself. In a message on September 11th, Al-Qaeda’s new leader sought to claim credit for the recent events of the Arab Spring. This was accomplished by “striking the head of the world criminal,” he said, forcing America to press Arab countries to rise up against tyranny and godlessness.

This of course is so convoluted, so obtuse, and so insincere that’s its not only meaningless, it’s laughable.

The Arab Spring has been the work of young peaceful protestors seeking democratic freedoms. In this they have risen, and continue to rise; whereas Al-Qaeda is all but flat on the ground.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Some Curious Observations About Some Curious Creatures

Dogs in Bali are different from other dogs. You may say that the statement is obtuse. You may even say that the difference is merely due to the fact that Bali dogs are dirty, smelly, flea-bitten, scrawny, generally unkempt and occasionally rabid. Of course, that is all true, and I do concede the point. Nevertheless, it is not the dirty, smelly, rabidness of these dogs that is my intended focus here. 

By the same token, I will not address the habits of careful grooming, clean hygiene and sophisticated lifestyle that are the purview of the American of the animal. It may be that American dogs in the near course of evolution will be smoking pipes and reading the morning newspaper instead of bringing it in from the doorstep. But I will leave such matters to another writer.

What interests me about these Bali dogs, and what truly bears comparison with the American, is the matter of community.

Let us say something first, however, about the natural history of the Bali dog.

Approximately 800,000 primary feral dogs live on the island of Bali. As far as can be discerned by those who ought to know, the Bali dog travelled from Africa through Indonesia and thence to Australia some 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, and is related most closely to the Chou and the Dingo. In addition it is known that this peculiar community of dogs became isolated some 10,000 years ago, when sea levels drastically rose and continents drifted apart. So it happened that the Bali dogs found themselves in Bali to stay, like it or not.

Now whether these dogs, isolated as such and thus stuck with each other, have grown throughout their generations an unusually close sense of community, or whether there was from the beginning some poverty of affection for them in the coexisting community of humankind, I know not. What can be readily seen in any case, at this late stage of evolutionary progress, is a persisting segregation of the breeds--human and canine, that is.

In America, for better or worse, the dog is a family member, a coddled child--walked by leash, fed by hand, caged or tied according to law--each member kept apart from “those other dogs,” except of course for the purpose of breeding, wherein the male and female of the species are allowed to interact for . . . well, for as long as it takes.

In Bali, the dog is a dog, has always been a dog, and will ever remain a dog. They are not pampered and spoiled by an owner, and in fact they often have no owner in particular, but belong more often to an area, members of a satellite community consisting of other tertiary communities such as cats, rats, birds, lizards, cockroaches, and so on.

What these dogs have then is each other. They are a race, a people, a social group, a religion, living separately and yet in harmony with all other creatures. In short, you have your Hindu, your Muslim, your Buddhist, your Christian, your Republican, your Democrat, your apple, your orange, and your Bali dog.

Because of this continued autonomy of community, what is most keenly noted is a vitality in interaction, which the civilized dog no longer possesses. In short, the dogs recognize their fellows and care for one another. They seldom go out alone, but prefer to take a friend along (or three, or four). They are aware of one another, and place a certain value on one another, whereas the American dog will see his erstwhile fellows as aliens and foes. Just watch the Bali dog at play! Like children, they know their kind and cavort the day long at their timeless amusements.

Is the American dog, in his family mansion, not poor by comparison? What game has he to play, at this far end of domestication, other than to stand behind his fence and bark?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remembering 9/11

It seemed a day like any other day. I woke as always to the buzzing of the bedside alarm, hit the snooze button, woke again five minutes later, rolled out of bed, made my way sleepy-eyed down the hallway, tripped over the dog in the usual way, let the dog out to the patio, went to the kitchen, put a pot of water on the stove to boil for coffee.

It was a Tuesday.

I sat down in the living room to wait for the water, picked up the remote, turned on the TV.

And learned that the world had changed.

The date was September 11, 2001, and the images that came to the TV screen were from another universe, another dimension. They were science fiction, scenes from a nightmare, lurid, hysterical, inexplicable.

It seemed that a jetliner had somehow crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. But how was this possible? The newscasters seemed, for once, as much in the dark as their morning viewers. Billowing clouds of black smoke were rising from the fractured tower. Sirens were wailing, red lights flashing, policemen and firemen rushing this way and that like frantic insects suddenly kicked from a nest, unsure of which way to run. How many had already perished in the flaming tower? And what of the passengers on the plane?

But then, of course, it got worse.

A second plane appeared impossibly from the blue, altogether out of place, grotesque. The second plane impacted the second tower. The tongue of hell slashed the veneer of heaven and the open mouth of evil belched fire and smoke and choking soot, sending flaming shards to the earth--of metal, of glass, of flesh and blood.


Perhaps 90 percent of the people who watched these events on their television screens, or witnessed their unfolding in person, would later describe their initial reaction of one of disbelief. It had happened right before our eyes, and yet it could not have happened. We had missed something, something was wrong, and if we would but hold our breaths for a half minute longer, it would all come clear.

And it did.

A third jetliner ploughed into the Pentagon in Virginia. A bit later a fourth would plummet to the earth in Pennsylvania.

These were not terrible accidents. This was premeditated murder. And war.

I remember going back to the bedroom to wake my wife. Something had to be done, and surely she would have some idea of what. As yet I had only sat and watched. What now? What now? A sadness was upon me, black as smoke, heavy as stone. I was falling from high in a tower. All of us were falling at once.

Every generation has at least one defining moment. In 1941 it was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. In 1963 it was the killing by assassination of John F. Kennedy. Ours happened on a Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

One will hear people say that innocence, as a defining characteristic of society, died long ago. But I do not believe that is true. Rather, innocence throughout this sad mortal life dies over and over again, at every age and in every people. It dies new on each occasion. What cannot be comes about nonetheless, and our fear is suddenly upon us--because someone somewhere, once again, has mistaken individual human beings for cardboard tokens, pieces in a game, political ideas, and has from the blindness of an alien and bankrupt soul plunged the real world into misery. Again, again, and once again.

If innocence dies always and forever, simplicity is the breath that brings life again. “All we want is to be left alone,” Jefferson Davis said. It is simple, it is na├»ve, and it will never happen. And yet it is the eternal anthem of the common man.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Masquerade of Madness in the Land of Amity

By and large, my impression of the Indonesian people in general, and of the Balinese people in particular, as imparted after two years of residence here, is of a people friendly almost to a fault--although only a Westerner, jaded and cranky as we are, could find fault in such a happy circumstance, seeming as it does not altogether prudent or quite adult.

But here are a people--though again in my somewhat limited, short-term experience--ever willing toward kindness and tolerance, intensely polite, simply agreeable. Here is a people who love to smile, even in the face of less than perfect circumstances--the near “accident” on the Bypass, for instance, when one is passed on the right while himself actually, and legally, and cautiously trying to turn right. This of course would be in the West, at the very least, sufficient cause for a lashing of carefully chosen curses.

It happens, and by old habit, that the words are already on the uncivil tongue, rising to that member volcanically with the heat of instant anger. It’s a knee-jerk response, and it’s easy. Strangely, it seems almost natural.

But what is this? The offender has flashed a toothy smile! His eyes are actually sparkling!

“Sorry, sorry,” he calls out cheerfully as he proceeds on his way.

What can you do? Kindness, like music, soothes the savage beast.

It may be, and sadly so, that we in the West have lost something of the communal spirit, and that simple tolerance, for all the pseudo-enlightened lip service given to lofty notions of political correctness, has long since slipped our archetypal grip.

Nonetheless, I am convinced that common people the world over--me and you and them as well--are inclined on the most basic level to be friendly and kind. It is when you transition from the general to the particular that you begin to get into trouble--when you enter the land of the special cause, the religious extremist, the political slogan, the shrill alarm. Here is where you find the haters. These are the folks who get into print, who hold the megaphones, who carry the signs. Here is the person, as Mark Twain said, who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.

And yet we listen. Or some of us do. And why? Is it only because of the volume? Is it because hatefulness in its own way, at some sad and degraded level of the human psyche, is simpler yet than simplicity itself?

We read in the Jakarta Post, for instance, that the vast nation of America is merely a puppet of the miniscule state of Israel. Is this not manifestly incredible? We read in another paper that Osama bin Laden “supposedly instigated and funded” terrorism. Supposedly? Really? We read of a 17 year old girl in Denpasar who has been found “partly responsible” for her rape at the hands of a tenant in the house because she forgot to lock her bedroom door. From Aceh comes the news that lesbians will henceforth be beheaded if caught in their transgression. “We are actually allowed by our religion to kill them,” said a district police chief. Good God.

Does this not bring for the better part of us an acute feeling of disbelief and disorientation--rather as if one had fallen off a skyscraper and landed on his head?

What? Where am I? What happened?

When something sounds wrong, sounds foolish, sounds unbelievable, it’s because it is.

These are the things that are truly aberrant--this masquerade of madness disguised as reason. This is where the unfeigned smile fails and compassion falls to the totems of fanatic prejudice and ignorance. In truth, one only needs meet a man to befriend a man. It is, as I said and still believe, the most natural thing in the world. And it is, despite those few shrill voices, the natural treasure of Indonesia.