Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 22, 2007

The Worst since 9/11

Hundreds of Iraqi Yezidis, members of an ancient religious sect heavily influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism, were murdered last week in the most deadly terrorist attack in the world since September 11, 2001. Fuel tankers packed with explosives were ignited in a refugee camp near the town of Kahtaniya, just outside the Kurdish autonomous region. Officials say the death toll has surpassed 500. The American military says this is the handiwork of al Qaeda. They’re probably right: this has their fingerprints all over it.

American commander General David Petraeus recently warned that terrorists and insurgents may use the media as a weapon and stage massive, headline-grabbing attacks as a way of showing the surge is a failure. If this massacre was indeed a part of that strategy, it has failed. Journalists aren’t playing along. They dutifully reported the attack and moved on, treating even this massive terror attack as just the latest in the steady drip, drip, drip of atrocities that erupt in Iraq as a matter of course.

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Hundreds of Iraqi Yezidis, members of an ancient religious sect heavily influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism, were murdered last week in the most deadly terrorist attack in the world since September 11, 2001. Fuel tankers packed with explosives were ignited in a refugee camp near the town of Kahtaniya, just outside the Kurdish autonomous region. Officials say the death toll has surpassed 500. The American military says this is the handiwork of al Qaeda. They’re probably right: this has their fingerprints all over it.

American commander General David Petraeus recently warned that terrorists and insurgents may use the media as a weapon and stage massive, headline-grabbing attacks as a way of showing the surge is a failure. If this massacre was indeed a part of that strategy, it has failed. Journalists aren’t playing along. They dutifully reported the attack and moved on, treating even this massive terror attack as just the latest in the steady drip, drip, drip of atrocities that erupt in Iraq as a matter of course.

Yet the terrorist attack that killed far fewer people at a tourist resort in Bali dominated headlines all over the world for weeks in October 2002. More recently, the bombings in London on July 7, 2005, which killed only one tenth as many, also created far more powerful shock waves. The world, it seems, is all but immune to al Qaeda’s shock and awe in Iraq. It has been a long time since mass murder in Mesopotamia has been news. Few still cry for Iraq. Hardly anyone has heard of Yezidis, the victims.

I know the Yezidis, however, and I can’t say I’m immune. I visited their capital, their “Mecca,” in Lalish, near Mosul, in 2005 and again in 2006. They are among the kindest, gentlest people I have ever met. I went to see them because the president of Dohuk University told me to go. “I am a Muslim,” he said, “but I love the Yezidis. Theirs is the original religion of the Kurds. Only through the Yezidis can I speak to God in my own language.” Some conservative Muslims libel the Yezidis as disciples of Satan, but they have a respected place in Kurdish culture. Kurdistan’s flag is unique among those of Muslims in that it includes a religious symbol, the Yezidi symbol—the sun, instead of a crescent.

The Yezidis have never declared war on anyone. They are the closest thing Iraq has to Quakers. Perhaps al Qaeda massacred the Yezidi refugees because they were a soft target, and because terrorists need body counts to be credible. Perhaps the Yezidis were killed because they are “infidels.” But does it even matter? Al Qaeda has no alleged grievances against the Yezidis, who have no political power and no militia, and who do not participate in sectarian Muslim rivalry. Even Saddam Hussein left them alone.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who himself is an ethnic Kurd, said the attack on the Yezidis’ refugee camp was genocidal. This is an overstatement. I can’t blame him, though, for reaching a bit. We need a new word for the instantaneous massacre of 500 innocents. The conventional and overused label of “terrorism” somehow doesn’t quite say it.

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Bookshelf

• I spent the past month staying in a string of New England country inns, most of which were of the sort that have libraries—of a sort. These moldering collections typically consist of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books (remember them?) and the best sellers of yesteryear, lightly sprinkled with the odd novelty. On occasion the novelties can be quite odd indeed. I passed a pleasant evening reading the memoirs of Lowell Thomas (remember him?) as I sat by the Atlantic Ocean a couple of weeks ago, and the very next night I stumbled across a copy of Karl Marx’s ‘Capital’ in Lithographs, a 1934 volume abridged and illustrated by Hugo Gellert, a long-forgotten artist whose earnest prose breathes the air of other spheres:

But out of the East rises a new Prometheus. And all the Gods in the World cannot chain him! The great disciple of Karl Marx, Lenin, led the Russian workers and peasants who created the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. And these workers and peasants became the Masters of their own destiny. The Young Giant with his mighty hands builds the future of mankind and bright lights flare up in his wake . . . .

More often, though, I contented myself with mysteries and thrillers of varying vintages, the oldest of which was John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, published in 1963, mere months before the assassination of John F. Kennedy robbed a generation of Americans of their dewy-eyed innocence, blah blah blah. Not that the pseudonymous author of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold had much innocence of which to be robbed, judging by the book’s denouement, which hinges on the complete and final disillusion of its grubby, self-pitying anti-hero:

What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.

As it happens, I’d never read a word of le Carré, and I was fascinated to find that he appears to be the man who introduced moral equivalence to modern espionage fiction. (Actually, Somerset Maugham beat him to the punch four decades earlier with Ashenden, but that book’s eponymous secret agent is not so much disillusioned as indifferent.) In The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, the Brits and Russians are interchangeably unscrupulous and cynical, and it is taken for granted that neither side deserves to prevail in the “long twilight struggle” proclaimed a scant two years earlier by the idealistic speechwriters of the soon-to-be-martyred architect of the New Frontier. It says something noteworthy about the emerging ethos of the Sixties that such a book was soon to become one of its emblematic literary successes.

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• I spent the past month staying in a string of New England country inns, most of which were of the sort that have libraries—of a sort. These moldering collections typically consist of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books (remember them?) and the best sellers of yesteryear, lightly sprinkled with the odd novelty. On occasion the novelties can be quite odd indeed. I passed a pleasant evening reading the memoirs of Lowell Thomas (remember him?) as I sat by the Atlantic Ocean a couple of weeks ago, and the very next night I stumbled across a copy of Karl Marx’s ‘Capital’ in Lithographs, a 1934 volume abridged and illustrated by Hugo Gellert, a long-forgotten artist whose earnest prose breathes the air of other spheres:

But out of the East rises a new Prometheus. And all the Gods in the World cannot chain him! The great disciple of Karl Marx, Lenin, led the Russian workers and peasants who created the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. And these workers and peasants became the Masters of their own destiny. The Young Giant with his mighty hands builds the future of mankind and bright lights flare up in his wake . . . .

More often, though, I contented myself with mysteries and thrillers of varying vintages, the oldest of which was John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, published in 1963, mere months before the assassination of John F. Kennedy robbed a generation of Americans of their dewy-eyed innocence, blah blah blah. Not that the pseudonymous author of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold had much innocence of which to be robbed, judging by the book’s denouement, which hinges on the complete and final disillusion of its grubby, self-pitying anti-hero:

What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.

As it happens, I’d never read a word of le Carré, and I was fascinated to find that he appears to be the man who introduced moral equivalence to modern espionage fiction. (Actually, Somerset Maugham beat him to the punch four decades earlier with Ashenden, but that book’s eponymous secret agent is not so much disillusioned as indifferent.) In The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, the Brits and Russians are interchangeably unscrupulous and cynical, and it is taken for granted that neither side deserves to prevail in the “long twilight struggle” proclaimed a scant two years earlier by the idealistic speechwriters of the soon-to-be-martyred architect of the New Frontier. It says something noteworthy about the emerging ethos of the Sixties that such a book was soon to become one of its emblematic literary successes.

• Repellent though the message of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold may be, it at least has the advantage of being exceedingly well written, albeit in a style indistinguishable from that of Graham Greene. In 1963 many best sellers still aspired to the condition of literature, and as late as 1987, Scott Turow, the author of Presumed Innocent, was clearly doing his best to produce a serious novel. Would that his editor had thus insisted on a complete rewrite, since Turow is a chronic overwriter who should be forced to spend a full year reading nothing but the complete works of Elmore Leonard. To be sure, he is also capable of writing with admirably clear-eyed straightforwardness about the mixed motives of lawyers and lawmen, and Presumed Innocent, which I found on the shelves of a Connecticut inn last week, has a richness of observation that helps to bring it within spitting distance of seriousness. Alas, it is disfigured at clockwork intervals by patches of the deepest purple:

Whatever wild, surging, libidinal rivers Carolyn undammed in me by her manner and appearance, there was something about the tender attention she showed this needy child that drew me over the brink, that gave my emotions a melting, yearning quality that I took to be far more significant than all my priapic heat.

No doubt this sentence was written with a straight face, but that doesn’t make it any easier to read with one.

• Unlike Scott Turow, John Grisham makes no pretense of being a serious writer. Indeed, it would be an act of charity to describe his lumpy prose as functional, for it bears much the same relationship to his elaborate plots that the flavor-free iceberg lettuce in a Midwestern salad bears to the Thousand Island dressing in which it is drenched. Since I find it all but impossible to read an ill-written book, I’ve hitherto made a point of steering clear of Grisham, but I reluctantly confess to having rather enjoyed The Firm, the 1991 novel in which he recounts the protracted travails and ultimate triumph of an Ivy League law-school grad who takes a way-the-hell-too-good-to-be-true job with a Memphis law firm that turns out to be a wholly owned subsidiary of Mafia, Inc.

Needless to say, The Firm is all plot and a yard wide, but at least it’s full of interesting facts. (Should the need ever arise, I now know how to launder large sums of money.) Even better, it’s a lawyer joke blown up to book length. Did you hear the one about the hot young gun fresh out of Harvard Law who landed a job with a firm that gave him a BMW and paid off his student loans . . . then tried to murder him? That’s my kind of moral equivalence.

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A Different Kind of Danger

Yesterday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average ended down 30.49 points. Yet both the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq Composite posted gains, and market signals indicate the Dow will turn back up today to continue the advance started on Friday. But even with the recent uptrend, no one thinks the global sub-prime lending crisis is over.

The recent turmoil in the world’s equity markets is a symptom of greater dislocations. There are many causes for the recent problems—such as the mispricing of risk caused by too much liquidity—and none of them have been solved by the recent gyrations in global markets. At some point, the great economic bull run following the fall of the Soviet Union must end. There is a rhythm to economies that governments can moderate, but not eliminate.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has taken the lead in developing mutually supporting systems—embodied by multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank—to ensure prosperity. Yet, if the shocks to this global system are too great, the network’s interconnectedness, normally a strength, becomes its weakness, as one part brings down another. As in an overstressed electrical grid, problems can first ripple and then cascade. So, for the first time in history, virtually all societies can move in sync due to the very nature of the international system we have created.

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Yesterday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average ended down 30.49 points. Yet both the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq Composite posted gains, and market signals indicate the Dow will turn back up today to continue the advance started on Friday. But even with the recent uptrend, no one thinks the global sub-prime lending crisis is over.

The recent turmoil in the world’s equity markets is a symptom of greater dislocations. There are many causes for the recent problems—such as the mispricing of risk caused by too much liquidity—and none of them have been solved by the recent gyrations in global markets. At some point, the great economic bull run following the fall of the Soviet Union must end. There is a rhythm to economies that governments can moderate, but not eliminate.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has taken the lead in developing mutually supporting systems—embodied by multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank—to ensure prosperity. Yet, if the shocks to this global system are too great, the network’s interconnectedness, normally a strength, becomes its weakness, as one part brings down another. As in an overstressed electrical grid, problems can first ripple and then cascade. So, for the first time in history, virtually all societies can move in sync due to the very nature of the international system we have created.

If a serious global recession hits the world now, how will it affect geopolitics? For one thing, governments will have fewer resources to pursue their ambitions. A general downturn, for instance, might accomplish what Democrats in Congress and insurgents in Baghdad have failed to achieve so far: an end to the American involvement in Iraq. The war, costing about $2 billion a week, has been affordable in a booming economy. In a recessionary one, it could become a burden the public might not be willing to bear, at least at present levels. Other members of the international coalition, whose commitments already are not firm, undoubtedly would pull out. Funding for the conflict in Afghanistan could be scaled back to unacceptably low levels.

Not all the foreseeable consequences of a severe recession would be bad, however. A fall in oil and gas prices most likely would dent the plans of Russia’s Putin, Venezuela’s Chavez, and Iran’s Ahmadinejad. A decline in global consumption could mean that China’s export markets might dry up, the Chinese economy might spiral downward, and the Communist Party might lose power. The Doha Trade Round would probably fail, and globalization would stop for a long pause—as it has done so many times in the past. Countries would insource and international commerce would decline.

The biggest imponderable is how people around the world will react in a deteriorating economic environment. In today’s hyper-connected society, private citizens have more say in what goes on, even under rigidly authoritarian governments. At this point, no one knows what the mood of global citizenry would be. All we know is that if a severe recession comes, the world will still be dangerous, but the dangers will differ from the ones we face today.

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