Crisis over ISIS

I haven’t blogged about ISIS until now because I’m in a crisis over ISIS. My laptop bears a sticker with the slogan “War is Not the Answer.” I’ve been a lifelong pacifist, joined the Quakers, and freely quote Gandhi’s famed dictum “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” I don’t grow weepy when I hear the “Star Spangled Banner,” nor do I thank anyone in uniform for protecting my “freedom.” That hasn’t been objectively true since 1945, and the only soldiers I truly respect are those who know exactly what they’re signing up for—not the testosterone-poisoned crowd that thinks the military is a live action video game, or the selfish ones just looking for college money and hope all they have to do is wear camo to class and do some spirited marching.
Do we just shoot this dog?

These days, though, I more annoyed by the Hugs, Puppies, and Rainbows (HPR) crowd—the kind who insist that the U.S.A. helped create groups like ISIS so we need to “understand” them and “work toward dialogue” with them. ISIS, Hamas, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other such crazies have shaken my faith in my own pacifism. I find myself agreeing with military leaders who say we cannot talk with them, we must exterminate them. I also find myself agreeing with those who argue we are in the midst of a global culture war in which Western values are fundamentally at odds with radical Islam.

I know, of course, that American policy did help create many of the problems we now seek to redress. I know that we supported Osama bin Laden and channeled funds to him when his mujahedeen was fighting the Soviet Union. I know that Ronald Reagan and both Bushes sucked up to the Saudis—the world’s number one exporter of terrorism--like hungry orphan infants, and that Damned Old Fool Reagan supported Saddam Hussein as well. I realize that many of our problems stem from electing idiots as commanders-in-chief. And yet… I’m shocked by how quickly and glibly HPR Americans have come to accept the “It’s all our fault” thesis. Does anyone remember how Ward Churchill was crucified for saying that 9/11 victims deserved their fate? What cause or injustice, I must ask, justifies sending suicide bombers onto a Tel Aviv bus? What justifies trying to bring down passenger jets? Or beheading someone in the name of Allah (whom jihadists insult by assuming he would need someone as monstrous as they to mete out justice)?  

I also know, objectively, that the world contains 1.6 billion Muslims and that most are good folks. It sounds clichéd, but it’s true—I have Muslim friends. I know that there are Zionist warmongers and that Christianity looks pretty awful when refracted through the lens of anti-abortionist bombers or Westboro Baptist bigots. Yet… It was Muslims who pulled off 9/11, beheaded Daniel Pearl (remember him?), strapped bombs to Palestinian children, shot a 13-year-old girl who wanted to go to school, encase their women in hoods, bombed Buddhist holy sites, leave a trail of headless corpses across Syria and Iraq,  and speak of using metaphorical swords to force the world to kneel to their god.  Sure—these are zealots. But I can’t agree that that they are inconsequential. Revolutions do not need majorities to wreak havoc or succeed—they need only a “critical” mass. I fear that critical point is approaching, and that the views of most Muslims are being subsumed in the hegemonic madness of its zealots. Alas, the biggest difference between jihadists and other religious crazies is that the latter truly are marginal and troublesome only on an individual basis.

We must be clear about all of this. Maybe the USA did contribute to the monsters we now battle, but when one encounters a rabid dog, does one stop to ask how it acquired its sickness? Or does one just shoot it? The HPR crowd embarrasses me when they speak of reasoning with monsters such as ISIS, Hamas, Al Qaeda, or the Taliban; they also insult their victims and survivors. Invite the mad dog into the living room to see if loving kindness will cure him? I don’t think so.

I’m still conflicted about what to do. The only thing I know for sure is that, as bad as he is, Assad is preferable to any of the Syrian rebels. (So was Saddam in Iraq, by the way.)  Only the HPR still believe in Arab Spring or in “moderate” rebels, the latter an oxymoron if ever one was constructed. I’m conflicted as I can possibly be about what the US role should be, but there’s a side of me that thinks it’s all  well and good to quote Gandhi—unless you’re the last person with sight in a roomful of the blind and there’s someone coming at you with a pointed stick. I want to believe that reasonable people can solve problems in a reasonable way, or that one can bring down repression non-violently--­like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Vaclav Havel did. But I’m not sure anyone should try to reason with mad dogs. You cannot speak to me of justice whilst committing atrocities in its name.  

Right now my position is as hypocritical as it can possibly be. I still call myself a pacifist, but I shed no tears when the mad dogs are put down. And I silently root for whomever is doing it—Kurds, Israelis, the Indian government, Afghani tribesmen, or US bombers.


All the Light We Cannot See a Radiant Triumph

All the Light We Cannot See (2104)
Anthony Doerr
Scribner's, 531 pp. ISBN: 1476746583
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I am being neither glib nor histrionic when I proclaim Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See a transcendent novel. Any discussion of best novels of 2014 that does not include this book is that of the unenlightened conversing in the dark.

Doerr's masterful tale is set in Saint-Malo during the 1944 D-Day invasion of France. Through flashback and fast forward techniques we relive the fall of France to the Nazis, the inner workings of the French Resistance, how children lost their innocence, liberation, and the myriad cruelties and acts of small kindness that take place in a land under siege. Above all, it is true to its title–it's about ways of seeing and not seeing. The book is populated by colorful characters, but it settles upon two major ones: Werner Pfenning, a German orphan boy whose technical brilliance saves him from toiling in the Essen coal mines, but sucks him into the Wermacht; and Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French teen.

Werner's facility with radios frees him from an orphanage, a facility from which he hopes also to redeem his younger sister, Jutta. In the Germany of the late 1930s, such hopes mean obedience to the State. Werner observes the cruelty of the Nazi regime, but must remain silent and choose not to see its immoral implications if he hopes to save Jutta. He must also bit his lip during Hitler Youth training in which his best friend, Frederick, is brutalized. What he can see its circuits, schematics, and electrical currents. At his special school he dutifully studies theory and trigonometry, but he's good at triangulating radio signals and uncovering hidden transmitters because he sees in his mind how everything connects. He also envisions enemy antennae before physically observing them.

Marie-Laure–as beautifully realized a character as one can imagine–sees in other ways. He father and caretaker, Daniel, is a locksmith for the Natural History Museum in Paris. He's also a master woodworker who constructs scale models of Marie-Laure's neighborhood that she "reads" through her fingers with the facility with which she reads Braille. Daniel also constructs elaborate wooden puzzles that Marie-Laure must solve and soon she is so good at cracking his mechanical conundrums that her fingers move with the grace of a concert pianist and the speed of a safecracker. When Daniel is entrusted with being one of four couriers for what might be a precious gem or might be one of three fakes designed to lead Nazi looters astray, he and Marie-Laure leave Paris for her Uncle Etienne's home in Saint-Malo. Marie-Laure must learn anew how to negotiate her way through streets–this time the maze-like warren of walled Saint-Malo.

One by one those close to her disappear until she begins to feel her kinship with a creature she "sees" on the beach, a blind snail species whose shell and chamber she knows as well as her own room, her well-fingered copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and her Uncle Etienne's hidden garret chamber with its transmitter. Trips to the Madame Ruelle's bakery to buy "an ordinary loaf" of bread come with coded numbers baked into the loaf. When all other couriers are removed, Saint-Malo's fate depends upon a blind girl wending her way through the city streets. And why not? In her darkness Marie-Laure sees things the sighted can never behold.

Intricate subplots overlay the inner struggles of Werner and Marie-Laure, such as the Inspector Girard-like pursuit of the missing gem by the sadistic Reinhold von Rumpel, Marie-Laure's relationship with her uncle's maternal housekeeper, Werner's moral crises and redemption, and small acts of rebellion by Occupied French women the likes of which seldom make the history books (but should). Doerr also gets an essential fact about war– fairy tale endings are the stuff of bad novels, not actual conflict. The resolution of this novel will both satisfy and leave you shattered; it both soars and scars. If I may, this book makes us see in a different light. –Rob Weir


Grace & Tony Making Beautiful Music Together

Rock Ridge Music 2-61397
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It's an old story–two people from different genres meet, fall in love, marry, and decide to make beautiful music together literally as well as figuratively. Grace Shultz was a bluegrass musician; Tony White was a punk rocker. Together they're making folk-styled Country music with all sorts of other stuff thrown in. November wasn't a huge jump for White, whose brother was one half of The Civil Wars. But don't expect a Civil Wars clone from Grace & Tony–his voice is much grittier than his brother's, and Grace eschews the fragility and angelic tone of Joy Williams in favor of twang and verve. As befits a former punk rocker like White, though, some of the material veers toward darker subjects–murder, addiction, and love gone wrong. That said, their love duet to each other, "Hey Grace, HeyTony" is joyful place where honky tonk intersects with sunny pop. "From Me to You" is another one on the sweet side. The rest is a mélange. "Grassphemy" is one of several songs in which old-time music sashays to the edge of grunge cacophony and makes its way home through better harmonies than most punk bands ever managed. There are also several selections–"Chameleon" and "La Carrera"– that blend the sensibilities of 1930s cowboy/Western music with what the duo calls "punkgrass." Think a meeting between Buck Page's Riders of the Purple Sage and The Ramones. There's even a splash of politics, "Electricity Bomb," a post-global warming ditty as it might have been sung during the 1950s Folk Revival. If you like your music eclectic, non-electric, and a little bit eccentric, November will warm your autumn soul. –Rob Weir

PS--Gotta love the bowtie/ear plugs combo on Tony in the above video link. That's a new one for me.