May 2011

One of the reasons for my recalling the last post which had been sitting in my drafts folder all this time, is the big news that is sure to be dominating the news in the US… the termination of one big O by another big O. And while I think this news brings closure to many, even if we did not personally lose any loved ones on that fateful day the twin towers went down, and even applaud the acheivement, I am once again less than impressed with the American reaction.

So am I being a knee-jerk self-hating American in my reaction? A terrorism or Islamic apologist? Critical for the sake of being critical? None of the above. For my own sake, I’ll try to clarify why I’m reacting negatively to what is essentially a positive outcome. It has to do with what i consider the complete loss of perspective inherent in these successes and the need for self-criticism and housekeeping rather than the unbridled self-righteousness that I’ve been seeing in the aftermath.

My reaction goes back to what I consider the American tunnel-vision regarding itself and its position in the world. So yes, Osama needed capturing or killing. 9/11 was an act of utter horror and I certainly do not buy into the various conspiracy theories afloat about it being masterminded from the inside in order to raise anti-Muslim sentiments in the world. (That is absurd, and the idea very self-referential. That is, only someone who would actually consider such an extremely deranged act could even think that someone else would use such a tactic. Fundamentalists, extremists and those of similar ilk).

That said though, I would have hoped that the Americans would realize and admit their grave errors in dealing with this problem over the past decade. Instead of course the mood is egregiously self-congratulatory. That editorial in New York Times by .. who was it now.. oh yes, Maureen Dowd… about the need for revenge? Please!!  The guy is dead! Beyond our reach. Nothing we do can hurt him anymore. Get over it. Besides, he is just one man. Even worse than her column though, much worse, was the implied justification for torture. Excuse me? Precisely what information did we get about Osama via torture?

Meanwhile mistakes, costly to human lives, are being ignored or glossed over. My main point of contention for instance, the Iraq War. How in the name of anything logical does Osama’s capture justify our invasion of Iraq, wreaking terror in the region in name of the war or terror?  No wait .. that was the initial excuse.. then it shifted to WOMD and then to bringing democracy! to the region. Arrrghgh. Elsewhere of course, we continued to support the regime in Pakistan (forget about the right to democracy of the people there or their WOMD because heck we finance that and besides, without it India would be a larger threat to our identity as the arbitrators of democracy in the world!!!!) and only worked on covert operations there, even though  there was so much more evidence for Al Qaeda and religious extremism in that part of the world. But why go after the the Oklahoma bomber close to home when you can destroy Washington State on some flimsy excuse. (That comparison is just to give a sense of the geographic absurdity of the Iraq War).

Somebody (many bodies actually) were comparing this to the death of Saddam. Something I find offensive. At least Osama was a clean kill.  I was no fan of Saddam’s, but the second-hand way in which his execution was engineered and then attributed to the will of the locals still makes me cringe and leaves me feeling unbearably dirty in a I-need-to-wash-my-hands sort of way .

I am aware that this rant is disjointed and rambling – I am reminded of Donna Leon’s description of her protagonist’s wife as a woman of leftist but chaotic politics –  but I hope my main point is somewhat clear. War is always horrific. And even in incidents with decisive outcomes like bin-Laden’s death, there are no winners. Everyone loses something.

For some reason I never posted this one when I actually wrote it… and looking at it now it seems complete enough. So let me take you back to the summer of 2009 (not written until November though, hence the Nobel reference):

Obama’s Nobel for Peace may or may not turn to be a remarkable feat of foresight on the part of committee or it may simply be, as so many Republicans claim, the world thumbing its nose at GWB finally relinquishing power. I’ll admit I’m ambivalent about the whole thing (GASP!!! am I actually agreeing with the Republicans?) not for the politics of the prize-givers, which I’m in sympathy with, but because politics rather than performance seemed to have motivated the decision. I’m not sure I have much more to say on that topic, but meanwhile it serves as a peg for me to hang my overdue post about my summer-solstice visit to Oslo where I not only visited the Peace museum but also some monuments to various childhood heroes (hence the title of the post).

Stories of polar expeditions, Peary and the North Pole and the race between Amundsen and Scott to the South, were gobbled up voraciously by my 8-to-9-year old self, oddly enough through the text books of my older cousins when I would visit them over holidays. I rejoiced in the victories of the victors. And though I felt truly sorry for the defeat of Scott, back in those days, Amundsen was my clear favorite. Until…

Fast forward a couple of decades to Yale, where I as a new graduate student in the history of science was working on a paper on the history of neuroscience for one of the introductory courses. During the course of my research I came across another name, Nansen, whom I did not remember from the Polar stories but was a true Renaissance man. He was a contributor to a fundamental concept known as the neuron theory, that incomplete as it might be, is the basis for understanding of how the brain does the various things its supposed to. He was also an explorer – polar expeditions, ski trips across Greenland the works… and finally, as I found out in a conversation with a doctor, also won the Nobel Peace Prize for post WWI humanitarian work. I had my (unfortunately too brief) flirtation of studying this guy further as a diss possibility but language barriers, other courses, papers etc soon sent him to the bottom of the pile. And over the next decade his name got lost in the recesses of my memory.

Fast forward again to summer solstice, 2009. There I am in Oslo, and decide to go to see the Viking boat museum. Only I found out that with my ticket I could visit an entire slew of museums all over town, in Oslo and on the peninsula by the Fjord were not one but 3 museums whose main themes were boats. There was the viking museum, where I could look at the vessels of Eric the Great (or Rapine depending on perspective I suppose); the Kon-Tiki Museum whose name jogged memories of yet another book/adventure I’d read about when I was young (very nerdy kid, what can I say?) and also the Polar boat museum aka the FRAM museum. So on a lovely clear summer’s day – the quality of light in Norway at that time of year is something to write songs about and maybe one day I inshallah – I took off for my land-bound maritime adventures. And reacquainted myself with some heroes from the days when I believed in them.