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The definition of terrorist has drifted far from ground zero.
The return of the culture wars.
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Days of infamy and memory.
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The Empty Theater
BOOKS: Joan Didion vs. the political class.
BOOKS: The Complete Works of Isaac Babel.
FILM: The Devils Backbone of the Spanish Civil War.
December 22, 2001
The Great Game
ince the release of The Video, Osama bin Ladens every gesture, chuckle and word has been dissected. But with all the attention on bin Laden, his co-star in the video, identified in the official transcript only as Shaykh, has received little scrutiny. Too bad, since no matter who he is (he is most commonly identified as the mujahedin Khaled al-Harbi), Saudi he offers a rare window into the psychology of men who think of mass murder as a great game.
A theme that comes up repeatedly in bin Ladens guests monologues is the idea that they are living in times as grand as those described in the Quran. This war, he observes, is like in the days of the prophet Muhammad. Exactly like whats happening right now. He goes on to say it will be similar to the early days of Al-Mujahedeen and Al-Ansar (similar to the early days of Islam). And just in case we didnt get the picture: It is the same, like the old days, such as Abu Bakr an Othman and Ali and others. In these days, in our times.
Its easy to chalk up this nostalgia to the usual theory about bin Ladens followers being stuck in the Middle Ages. But the comments seem to reflect something more. Bin Laden doesnt long for some ascetic medieval lifestyle, but the idea of living in mythic timeswhen men were godlike, battles were epic and history was spelled with a capital H. Screw you, Francis Fukuyama, he seems to be saying, History hasnt ended yet. We are making it, right here, right now!
Weve heard this idea from many quarters since September 11, a return of the great narrative: chosen men, evil empires, master plans and great battles. All are ferociously back in style. The Bible, the Quran, The Clash of Civilizations, Lord of the Ringsall of them suddenly playing out in these days, in our times.
This grand redemption narrative is our most persistent myth, and it has a dangerous flip-side. When a few men decide to live their myths, to be larger than life, it cant help but have an impact on all the lives that unfold in regular sizes. People suddenly look insignificant by comparison, easy to sacrifice in the name of some greater purpose.
When the Berlin Wall fell, it was supposed to have buried this epic narrative in its rubble. This was capitalisms decisive victory. Ideology is deadlets go shopping. The end-of-history theory was understandably infuriating to those whose sweeping ideas lost the gladiatorial battles, whether it was global communism, or, in bin Ladens case, an imperialist version of Islam. What is becoming clear post-September 11, however, is that historys end also turned out to be a hollow victory for the U.S. cold warriors. Since 1989, many of them have missed their epic narrative as if it were a lost limb. Without ideology, shopping was just shopping.
During the Cold War, consumption in America wasnt only about personal gratification; it was the economic front of the great battle. shopping, they were participating in the lifestyle that the Commies supposedly wanted to crush. When kaleidoscopic outlet malls were contrasted with Moscows gray and barren shops, the point wasnt just that we in the West had easy access to Levis 501s. In this narrative, our malls stood for freedom and democracy, while their empty shelves were metaphors for control and repression.
But when this ideological backdrop was yanked away, the grander meaning behind the shopping evaporated. The response from the corporate world was lifestyle branding: an attempt to restore consumerism as a philosophical or political pursuit by selling powerful ideas instead of mere products. Ad campaigns began equating Benetton sweaters with fighting racism, Ikea furniture with democracy and computers with revolution.
Lifestyle branding filled shoppings meaning vacuum for a time, but it wasnt enough to satisfy the ambitions of the old-school cold warriors. Cultural exiles in a world they had created, disgruntled hawks spent their most triumphant decade grouching about how America had gone soft, become feminized. It was an orgy of indulgence personified by Oprah and Bill Clinton.
But post-September 11, History is back. Shoppers are once again foot soldiers in a battle between good and evil, wearing new stars-and-stripes bras by Elita and popping special-edition red, white and blue M&Ms. When U.S. politicians urge their citizens to fight terrorism by shopping, it is about more than feeding an ailing economy. Its about once again wrapping the day-to-day in the mythic, just in time for Christmas.