Bin Laden’s Death and a Matter of Honor

I was working for the Saudi Press Agency at the kingdom’s U.S. embassy in Washington when the United States and the United Kingdom invaded Iraq in March, 2003. The Saudis I knew were not terribly supportive of the invasion, but they didn’t like the Iraqi government much either. They also knew there wasn’t much they could do, and that the Kingdom was tacitly supporting the invasion.

In the first week of the invasion, when the Iraqi army appeared to give little effective resistance to the American advance, a few Saudis I met in the embassy were a little glum. “We don’t expect them to win,” one told me. “But they do need to fight well. They need to show they can and are willing to fight to protect their country and their families.”

There is no sin in losing to a superior force if you at least acquit yourself honorably on the battlefield. This is both a matter of honor (in the premodern sense) and dignity (in a modern sense)*. To be utterly overpowered, to never have a chance to fight and die in a “fair” fight, to feel that you have been defeated fairly rather than unfairly is, I think, almost as important as whether you win or lose. The West’s way of war — technologically effective, impersonal, overpowering and overwhelming — is a way of war of the deprives those who are defeated of their honor and dignity. (This matters, because it’s impossible to make peace or even reconcile people to their defeat if they do not believe they maintain some amount of honor and dignity in the fight. It means that “winning” wars in such ways effectively does not matter.)

To stand, to fight, to even die like men — that’s important. We ignore that reality at our peril.

This came to me last night as I considered the scant reports we have now of Usama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. commandoes in north-eastern Pakistan. As of this writing, it appears he died on his feet, fighting, and it was important that he did so. I do not know if this was intentional or not, but the Obama administration gave bin Laden an honorable death. Granted, unlike Saddam Hussein, bin Laden probably reconciled himself to dying years ago. And with his faith, he likely had no fear of dying either. I suspect he was not inclined to be captured alive.

And capturing him alive presented any number of problems — where to keep him, how to treat him, how public a spectacle he is to become. Treating him the way U.S. forces treated Saddam Hussein, the public humiliation of something like a health checkup, photos of bin Laden in a cage in Cuba, would have enraged too many people. Granted, Saddam was a coward who talked big about fighting to the end but hoped, instead, to live and rule another day. He did not. The American desire to humiliate bin Laden was intense, and it is good we were not given — and did not take — the opportunity to act upon our worst impulses.

This doesn’t matter because somehow those waging war on the United States will say to themselves, “the Americans are now honorable, so we can stop fighting.” They won’t stop. But in the outrage to come — about the violation of Pakistani sovereignty, the dumping of the body at sea — many will at least be able to say bin Laden died fighting, that he died like a man. There will be some begrudging admiration from friend and foe alike. It will provide something resembling an ending.

The only problem I have with how the administration has acted has been with what they did with the body of bin Laden. I would have seriously considered giving the body to the Bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia, knowing that the burial rules and customs of the Wahhabis require burial in an unmarked grave. The Bin Ladens could have buried their wayward and long-disowned son deep on private property and no one would ever know where. It does, however, make sense that the administration feared they would no longer have control over the conversation if they released the body. The burial at sea — I suspect with the presence of a Muslim cleric and maybe a Muslim service member or two for a proper funeral — was basically a dumping, a way to easily get rid of a now-inconvenient artifact, something too hot to handle. It’s clever they are justifying this by motioning to bin Laden’s “religious beliefs,” but this was all about not wanting to keep the trophy too long.

Because it would have been too tempting to want to do something awful to the body. Something humiliating. (I can just see the likes of John McCain and Joe Lieberman demanding that Bin Laden’s body be publicly displayed and “desecrated”…) Something that would have only angered Muslims across the world. It would have been Americans at their absolute worst. In according Usama bin Laden the dignity of dying in a firefight, dying on his feet, and then dumping his body in the deep blue sea, the Obama administration has also according the Muslim world a matter of respect. Some honor. Some dignity.

Real power is knowing when you don’t have to, and don’t need to, and probably shouldn’t, lord it over others. There’s much that I don’t like about Obama, and the actions of his administration, but he does have a more sophisticated and effective understanding of power than many in the GOP, who confuse barking orders and threatening people with real power.  Who confuse brutalizing and humiliating people with defeating them. And, like Israel’s Likudniks, confuse strength with aggression and domination.

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* I have come to believe that dignity and honor are roughly the same thing. Honor being a pre-modern, very tribalist notion (that requires a community), while dignity is its modern and much more individualistic articulation.

The Hot, Hot Sounds of Araby

Another non-political post. Well, mostly.

The cover of “Dardanella,” taken while perusing a University of Chicago special song collection.

From 1918 through to roughly 1922, there was a genre of popular American tunes that focused on the exotic east, and forbidden love. This was roughly the time Rudolph Valentino was playing “The Sheikh” in movies. I’ve come across a couple such songs — “Dardanella,” which was a small-time hit, “Hindustan,” “Sheik of Araby” — but I know there are a number of others. It is a kind of orientalism in popular song, using the motifs of the seductive, unrestrained, romantic East, a place of harems and purple sunbirds (from “Hindustan”) and camels and forbidden love and whatnot. There are a few songs that refer to a place called Araby (a term probably concocted by English Romantic poets). It goes farther East, to China, but most of the romance seems to focus on what the Pentagon now calls the “Arc of Instability.”

It is interesting this is an immediate post-WWI phenomenon roughly contiguous with “Coon Songs” (oh please, don’t ask). I suspect it has a lot to do with the shock of WWI, and America’s contact with the world, which had always been seen by some elements of American culture as decadent (like the seductive East). It has been too long since I’ve read Edward Said, but I don’t know if he deals with this element of orientalism in 20th century popular culture or not. It didn’t really last very long, and aside from Valentino, it didn’t leave much of an impression. There are musical motifs that suggest the East — bouncing rhythms, minor keys, bending strings — but I’m not exactly sure what era of music they come from. (They come from somewhere.) Those motifs, those musical ways of depicting the East, are reflected in Maurice Jarre’s score to Lawrence of Arabia, but also very effectively in the Madness song “The Liberty of Norton Folgate.”

And while I’m not exactly a fan of the most current pop music (Katie Perry is about all I can take, since there’s actual music there, which cannot be said for Ke$ha or Rihanna), it is interesting to hear some of the world influences in very modern dance pop. Eventually, real Arab music will find its way into an American dance hit. Mostly because Arabs have too much music you can dance to. And they know how to use synthesizers.

This is just a long introduction to the fact that I’m going to have to write one of these orientalist songs. Not that I wanted to. But as I was struggling with sleep last night, a half-verse attached to a melody came into my head and stayed there ’til morning — surely a bad sign. “When Saud was king of all Araby / from sparkling sea to burning sand / the holy land of the Mohammedans / crisscrossed by the caravans.” Yeah, it’s doggerel, and in minor chords too. I’ve not sat down and figured this out on the ukulele, but I just know that sometime today (in amidst everything else I have to do) this will happen. It’s going to be called “Veiled Girl of Araby,” and like every other ersatz 20s song I’ve been writing since last fall, it’s going to be about love — this time, mysterious and forbidden love. I will keep true to the form.

But unlike messers Bernard, Black and Fisher, or most other Tin Pan Alley hacks scribbling away at their pianos, I have actually met a few “veiled girls of Araby.” And, I have actually been to the Araby in question. So this is going to be fun.

Hmm, now, what rhymes with Nejd?

NPR as Useful Idiot

This short news piece from the 09 April Morning Edition broadcast made my blood boil. Well, not quite, but almost. It was NPR being stupid. And being used.

NPR newsgal Kelly McEvers is wandering around Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province as well as the tiny island Kingdom of Bahrain, documenting Shia unrest (can we please deep-six that obnoxious sounding word Shiite already? Because the BBC has…) in both states, beginning at a checkpoint and ending with the following words from a Bahraini “Shia activist” regarding seeking help from lagrely Shia Iran:

When a man has already lost everything, why should he care about the country around him? Why not just let it burn?

(Hmm, I wonder how NPR would play that quote if it came, say, from a Tibetan, or Russian opponent of the current Kremlin regime or a Burmese refugee?)

It is clear from this report that it was not gathered “on the sly,” clandestinely, without the knowledge or the approval of at least some elements of the Saudi state, most likely the Interior Ministry. We know this because every time an intrepid NPR reporter gets a story from inside Myanmar, we are told that reporters aren’t allowed in Myanmar, so it took courage and pluck to defy rules, hide equipment, interview people and get actualities from inside the country. Had that been the case, NPR would have told us just that at the beginning of this report. An American reporter, a woman, getting sound from a military/interior ministry checkpoint, getting interviews in a city surrounded by such checkpoints, well, that just doesn’t happen. So, someone in Riyadh, likely someone very high up, wanted us to hear this report.

Why? To influence the debate within the regime of the Mahatma Obama as to what to do about Iran. If it’s “clear” that Iran is “using” or “inciting” the Shia of the Eastern Province and Bahrain to misbehave — and always be wary of the person in charge who says the moral equivalent of “our negroes are happy and content, only a few are agitated and angry, and then only because communists are stirring them up” — then it’s clear that the current Iranian government is attempting to destabilize two very important U.S. Arab allies. Be afraid. Something must be done. Stop dawdling. This, I’m guessing, is supposed to sweeten the “bomb them now” pot currently being stirred by Likudniks on both sides of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Consider that elements of the Saudi government (but only elements; I fully expect a less bellicose piece on Iran to come out of NPR’s Riyadh bureau within the next few weeks), Binyamin Netanyahu and the American Enterprise Institute all singing from the same demonic hymnal. The Mahatma may (or may not) be willing to pressure Israel over Iran (but only because Bibi is PM; had Tzipi Livni or Ehud Barak won that post, it would be another matter entirely), but helping Saudi Arabia is another matter entirely — it has been U.S. government policy to protect Saudi Arabia from any enemy foreign or domestic at virtually any cost since the second half of the Carter Administration. For those eagerly looking to clobber Iran, making nice with the likes of Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef is merely the price of doing business.

I listen to NPR because (1) I don’t have Internet at home right now, so I can’t listen to the BBC (2) I find AM talk radio mindless, stupid and insulting and (3) I hate commercials, which I find doubly insulting, even more than the self-serving twaddle that is a typical seasonal pledge break. While NPR is intellectually more engaging than just about any other broadcast news operation in the US, that isn’t saying much (the BBC isn’t what it was 20 years ago either). I generally find NPR’s liberal statism and liberal nationalism repulsive. Generally, the liberal statist/nationalist wants the state, the order and stability it allegedly brings and the good it an do to improve the lot of people everywhere, but fails or refuses to acknowledge the violence necessary and needed for the state to accomplish what it does. But that urge to do good, to free people from oppression, ignorance, superstition and poverty, and the belief the state is the best or only way to do that, make liberals good and useful idiots for warmongering neocons/Likudniks, who harbor no illusions and just want to beat the crap out of people. People who aren’t Jewish Israelis at any rate.

I would have hoped someone at NPR would have asked “why does someone want us to do this story, a story that fingers Iran as the problem,” but you know, were I an Amreekee reporter in the KSA, twiddling my thumbs and knowing, like most reporters, I have a nose ring and a chain that someone can yank when I get out of line, then I’d of gotten excited when someone put a few more links in that chain and let me wander out someplace I’d never been before to get an exciting story. Or made it the price of getting a better story. Who knows. But people listening need to know they, and NPR, are being used. For a purpose that only ends with bombs falling on Iran.