Zero Dark Thirty

In his 1991 book Baghdad Without a Map, Tony Horwitz, a freelance journalist who lived in the Middle East during the 1980s, wrote about visiting Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before the Persian Gulf War. While sightseeing in the capital, he sneers at a statue commemorating Saddam’s attempt to kill Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim in 1959:

Iraq was the first country I had ever visited that enshrined an assassination attempt as the most glorious event in the nation’s history.

When I read that back in the 1990s, I shared Horwitz’s contempt for that nation which wrapped its identity in thuggish violence. Lately I’ve been reminded of it as we celebrate the killing of Osama bin Laden. I was glad to see the end of him but I don’t see it as anything worth celebrating. It took us ten years to track down and squash that miserable worm and in the meantime we let him warp our society. Don’t be so proud.

Another cycle on the tragedy machine

My brother once observed, “You’re only as safe as I am sane.”

This week ended with the occasional affirmation that my brother was right. Of course the President and everybody less important down to professional athletes has to say something about how horrible it is. We have this little ritual of political correctness for acknowledging tragedy: we say, “what a tragedy.” Our other ritual of mass grief is pretending that our obsession with gossipy details somehow constitutes empathy. Listening to part of a press conference with the medical examiner, a reporter asked what the victims were wearing. They were first graders, the doctor answered. That’s the sort of stupid-ass question reporters ask on our behalf.

And there’s the usual gun control navel-gazing that bubbles up around these occasions. I doubt anything will change. Earlier this year The Onion ran a satirical article with the headline “NRA Sets 1,000 Killed In School Shooting As Amount It Would Take For Them To Reconsider Much Of Anything”. Reliably, The Onion pretty much summed it all up for us six months ahead of time.

I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that some tragedies are more tragic than others; that if twenty gunned-down college students or theater-goers won’t make us reexamine our society’s fetishes for guns and violence or its failures to provide adequate mental health care that somehow twenty gunned-down first graders will. If anything, the indulgent news coverage of previous mass shootings has simply prepared us to accept the murder of these small children in stride, and will help us rehearse our responses for later attacks on even more innocent victims.

Move to the adult section

Here’s a good rule of thumb: famous artists’ private lives do not make good children’s books. Looking through the children’s section at the library I found “Who Was Pablo Picasso?” by Kelley True. It’s a biography of Picasso written for elementary school ages. From what I saw it was a good example of how children’s books should be more than adult subjects written on a fourth grade level. A lot in it was out the average nine year old’s reach, like an explanation of who Gertrude Stein was. (Most adults can’t explain who Gertrude Stein was; the book describes her as the lady who wrote the famous line, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Oh, her.)

Most inappropriately, the book has an account of when Picasso’s muse Françoise Gilot left him. I’m paraphrasing from memory here, but it went something like, “Picasso was devastated. No woman had ever left him before. He was always the one who decided when things were over.” Ack!

World War Z

A trailer for the movie World War Z, set for release next year, got our attention so I borrowed the book by Max Brooks from the library. I finished it in a couple of days. If you ever read Hard Times by Studs Terkel, you get the idea. Instead of it being an oral history of the Great Depression, it’s an oral history of a global zombie war that took place right around now.

The author obviously gave a lot of thought to the logistics of a zombie plague like: the undead couldn’t drown so those that ended up in the water might stay there, either submerged or floating, posing hazards to swimmers and men-overboard. I thought that was one of the more colorful innovations in the book. Brooks hints at but doesn’t really explain the nature or science of the zombie plague, which isn’t really necessary and would take some of the fun out of the story. He establishes some general rules: the zombies are pretty standard mindless ghouls that walk slow, eat people they can catch, moan, and are stopped only by destroying their brains.

It’s funny, though, because the author and his characters keep calling it a “war” while acknowledging that it was unlike a war (zombies don’t get afraid or lose their spirit or surrender). Without any political contention between the “combatants” I don’t think a zombie outbreak or whatever you might call it would be any more a war than a flu pandemic. But maybe we’re just used to making warlike analogies for every conflict and contest. Probably this is the habit of a people who don’t really know war.