Monday, March 29, 2010

Mission to Moscow

Islamist radicals from the North Caucasus are nearly always at the top of the list of suspects when a bomb causes death and destruction in Russia.  All the more so, when the attack is carried out by female suicide bombers.  Guerrillas fighting to separate the republic of Chechnya from Russia adopted the suicide bombing tactic for the first time in 2000.  In 2002, women were members of the group that held a Moscow theatre audience hostage, until the building was gassed and stormed by security forces, with huge loss of life.  They were dressed in veils and bandanas that indicated their readiness to die in battle, and the following year came the first attacks by female suicide bombers...
...The question of why these women have been prepared to take their own lives in order to kill others has been given a partial explanation.  Two of the women who joined the Moscow theatre siege are reported to have been sisters seized from their homes in a Chechen village by Russian soldiers and gang-raped.  Over the past 14 years, Russian soldiers have left a trail of destruction in Chechnya that is psychological as well as physical.  Countless women have been widowed, or lost sons, brothers or fathers. Those who have been raped may find it impossible to marry and live a normal life.  Post-traumatic stress disorder is reported to be widespread among Chechen women.

Some have also argued that extremism has been strengthened by the actions of our coalition in Iraq, claiming that our presence in that country has somehow caused or triggered the rage of radicals. I would remind them that we were not in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001 -- and al Qaeda attacked us anyway. The hatred of the radicals existed before Iraq was an issue, and it will exist after Iraq is no longer an excuse. The government of Russia did not support Operation Iraqi Freedom, and yet the militants killed more than 180 Russian schoolchildren in Beslan.

So terrorism did not begin with the Coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, and it has not spared even those who opposed said invasion.  Shocking to learn that the world doesn't obey the syllogisms you invent to explain it, no?  While Bush is right that "we were not in Iraq on September the 11th" (the justification for that attack had been the corrupting presence of U.S. forces in the unholy state that happens to contain the holy cities of Mecca and Medina), and that "Russia did not support Operation Iraqi Freedom," his lengthy speech betrays less complexity than a page-long BBC article.  

Operation Iraqi Freedom has contributed to anti-American radicalization worldwide, though likely less so than the localized effects of errant bombs, raids, and incarcerations in Iraq and Afghanistan themselves.  The idiocies of Abu Ghraib and the cruelties of Guantanamo's Room 101 contributed too, as did IDF blockades and invasions of Gaza.  Not all of the catalysts are exogenous: repression, unemployment, and unequal divisions of wealth in the rabidly-secular dictatorships of the Middle East (and in authoritarian, officially-Wahhabi Saudi Arabia) are key factors, factors that W. Bush, to his credit, was actually addressing at the time of his syllogized speech in October 2005.  In a human-all-too-human world, "the hatred of the radicals...will exist after Iraq is no longer an excuse."

Desultory Eclecticism has been struggling with the emergence of conservative publicist Marc Thiessen as a legitimate voice in the national debate (see Jane Mayer deconstruct him here).  Pleading Marcus of Queensbury legalisms while employing an immoral, self-destructive adherence to the letter-of-the-law-as-interpreted-by-John-Yoo-and-Jay-Bybee, Thiessen uses blunt, fight-makes-right, Cheneyist, chicken-hawk rhetoric to hammer the testicular weaknesses imperiling Barack Obama's America.  The idiocy of torture has been fairly well established.  Without the coerced confessions of Ibn Shaikh al-Libi, W. Bush would have had a much more difficult time convincing the media establishment of the absolute necessity of the invasion that, as he so insightfully points out, did not (contrary to no one's belief) create the jihadist movement or supply its sole raison d'etre.  

The Manichaean epistemology that equates torture with safety and jihad with Iraq informs the same worldview that links communism with healthcare, healthcare with Obama, and thus Obama with future gulags.  In the past it allowed Russian, Chinese, and Vietnamese communists to be lumped together into an evil, monolithic conspiracy.  Today it conflates IEDs in Iraq with suicide bombs on the Moscow metro.  Russian armies and governments already have decades of Chechen blood on their leather gloves, and the innocent victims of this mornings attacks are suffering for it.  Reprisals are sure to follow, and Chechen radicals are sure to respond.  Simplified explanations will continue to use euphemisms like "reprisals" in place of "bombing," "torture," and "rape," and "Islamist" will continue to encompass the same broad, undefined threat that "Communist" once did.  The innocent blood in the metro cries out for vengeance-begetting vengeance, but it cannot solve an old problem.  The sound and fury will come to nothing.  Unknown-unknowns will continue to spoil the syllogism.          

A Russian once spent 1300 pages threshing out some of this:

As the sun and each atom of ether is a sphere complete in itself, and yet at the same time only a part of a whole too immense for man to comprehend, so each individual has within himself his own aims and yet has them to serve a general purpose incomprehensible to man.

A bee settling on a flower has stung a child. And the child is afraid of bees and declares that bees exist to sting people. A poet admires the bee sucking from the chalice of a flower and says it exists to suck the fragrance of flowers. A beekeeper, seeing the bee collect pollen from flowers and carry it to the hive, says that it exists to gather honey. Another beekeeper who has studied the life of the hive more closely says that the bee gathers pollen dust to feed the young bees and rear a queen, and that it exists to perpetuate its race. A botanist notices that the bee flying with the pollen of a male flower to a pistil fertilizes the latter, and sees in this the purpose of the bee's existence. Another, observing the migration of plants, notices that the bee helps in this work, and may say that in this lies the purpose of the bee. But the ultimate purpose of the bee is not exhausted by the first, the second, or any of the processes the human mind can discern. The higher the human intellect rises in the discovery of these purposes, the more obvious it becomes, that the ultimate purpose is beyond our comprehension.

All that is accessible to man is the relation of the life of the bee to other manifestations of life. And so it is with the purpose of historic characters and nations.         
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, First Epilogue, Chapter IV

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Belated Happy Birthday to Mikhail Gorbachev

Gorbachev's birthday, it arbitrarily turns out, fell last week.  Desultory Eclecticism features him today because 1) Gorbachev had an op-ed published in the Sunday Times 2) Desultory Eclecticism was recently reminded of a relic from the early post-Communist past 3) Desultory Eclecticism has been too busy to provide you with its usual probing analytic insights and just needed to throw something together.  Promises of better stuff to come this week.

An excerpt from the Times op-ed, which provides some nice first-hand context for Russia 25 years after Перестройка (perestroika for the less pretentious):

...What were our goals, what did we want to achieve? We came a long way in a short time — moving from trying to repair the existing system to recognizing the need to replace it. Yet I always adhered to my choice of evolutionary change — moving deliberately so that we would not break the backs of the people and the country and would avoid bloodshed.

While the radicals pushed us to move faster, the conservatives stepped on our toes. Both groups must bear most of the blame for what happened afterward. I accept my share of responsibility as well. We, the reformers, made mistakes that cost us, and our country, dearly.

Our main mistake was acting too late to reform the Communist Party. The party had initiated perestroika, but it soon became a hindrance to our moving forward...

And a relic from the ensuing chaos of the Yeltsin years (extra context: 
Desultory Eclecticism recalls this commercial airing during the seminal tragedy of the 20th Century):

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Desultory Eclecticism Readers in the News

Desultory Eclecticism is not a personal blog; however, some first-personish narrative is necessary for today's post.  Desultory Eclecticism has spent a reasonably significant portion of its recent past in Ukraine.  It has some friends there.  It grabbed an early morning beer with one of them on a visit to Kiev in early January.  A few weeks later, a new issue of The New Yorker arrived in the mail.  Desultory Eclecticism put the magazine in its bag for later subway reading.  It came across an article about the recent Ukrainian Presidential elections and began to read...

"...A young man named Sergey showed me around..."

Desultory Eclecticism thought, "I know a young man named Sergey."

"...Sergey, it turned out, was the [Yushchenko campaign] press center's Ukrainian language copy editor. 'I have perfect Ukrainian, which is very rare,' he said..."

Desultory Eclecticism thought, "Sergey said something about working in the press office of the Yushchenko campaign over morning beers last month.  And he does speak Ukrainian."

"...In non-election times, Sergey is a translator of foreign films and TV shows.  He did the entire Ukrainian run of "Everybody Loves Raymond" and also several episodes of "Miami Vice," which helped explain his handsome two-day growth of beard..."

Desultory Eclecticism thought, "I remember a former student of mine telling me that her brother worked in Kiev translating English-language media into Ukrainian.  I also remember that this brother of a former student is the very Sergey who said over morning beers last month that he had a new job working in the press office of the Yushchenko campaign.  And this Sergey often goes days at a time without shaving."

"...[Sergey] invited me to the tiny two-bedroom apartment he shared with a couple of old friends, both named Sasha, in a decrepit Brezhnev-era apartment on the east side of the Dnieper.  We drank beers until four in the morning..."

Desultory Eclecticism thought, "I know a Sergey who works for the Yushchenko campaign, translates English media into Ukrainian, likes beer, and lives in a Brezhnev-era apartment on the east side of the Dneiper with two old friends, but the apartment is bigger than mine, and one of the friends is not called Sasha, but 'Galanich'.  Ah, perhaps they call him 'Galanich' because having two 'Sashas' around would get too confusing.  No, no, something here just doesn't add up."

"...I had met people like Sergey, who felt themselves pulled toward Europe and the West ("You've seen the film 'The Secret.'  You haven't seen 'The Secret'? What do you mean you haven't seen 'The Secret'?)..."

Desultory Eclecticism thought, "I'll have to write Sergey an email and tell him he's famous."

Congratulations, Serogia!