Monthly Archives: November 2015

Terror Stalks Paris, Beirut, Bamako

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There were three terrorist attacks in in the world in one week carried out by ISIS and Boko Haram: They were in Beirut (Lebanon), Paris and Bamako (Mali). The magnitude, character and location of the Paris attacks captured all the media attention and managed to suck the air out of anything else that happened that same week.

In Paris, the planning by at least four groups had been meticulous. Much of the preparation originated in Brussels, Belgium. Many of the terrorists have now either died, been captured or killed but some are still not accounted for as of this writing. Saleh Abdelsalam, thought to be the brains of the operation is still at large. As a result, for much of last week, Brussels was a “dead” city. Everything was shut down, streets were deserted as people were encouraged to stay home because large gatherings were likely to be targeted. Life did not “go on.”

President Hollande of France whose job performance ratings had been very low, rose to the occasion and took a De Gaullesque stance. He announced: We are in a state of war and ISIS must be destroyed. Well, Monsieur Hollande, we have been in a state of war for some time already. The attackers were not “strangers.” Many of them are disenchanted locals, second and third generation immigrants who reached the citizen stage without ever going through the “melting pot” stage. They did not grow roots or learn how to fashion their own destiny. As a result, they fell prey to the jihadists’ siren songs. These West-haters are only too happy to do the thinking for them. They lure them with promises, give them a sense of belonging and a group identity not to mention a salary. The French have been lax in detecting the signs of this mounting discontent. They have closed their eyes to these youth’s increasing restiveness and have not been able to gain their allegiance.

Another contributing factor to this new vulnerability is that Europe does not have a common defense system. There is no coordination in information sharing and precautionary measures. So now the violence is no longer peripheral to Europe. Contamination has set in. We know now that this sort of attack does not happen only in destabilized societies. Europe is not used to living in a context of violence, suspicion and paranoia. It is also helpful to remember that France is one of the countries that has been selling arms to Qatar which finances revolutionary mosques in which much terrorist recruiting occurs.

In Beirut, forty people were killed and 200 injured at the American University of Beirut. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. Beirut once known as the Paris of the Orient has had many upheavals and a bloody civil war. It now has an absent government and many Syrian refugees. In spite of this, life had been relatively “normal” recently. However, because the country is associated with upheavals and conflict, hardly anyone took notice of this terrorist attack even though the killings were as random and deadly as the ones in Paris. They happened in crowded areas and affected young and old, Christian and Muslim alike. But in the aftermath, no monuments were illuminated, no flags flown. No outpouring of sympathy and grief were visible. There were no signs of support, solidarity or compassion and no one called it “an attack against humanity.” Was Beirut’s grief less important?

The third attack took place in Bamako, Mali at the Radisson Blu Hotel where many Westerners congregated mainly for business. They were all having breakfast when the assailants burst in and started shooting indiscriminately, randomly and repetitively. Most of the dead were Westerners including six Russians.

Mali had not quite yet recovered from an attempt a few years ago by Tuareg rebels to split the country in two. Fighting raged for months and was only stopped by an infusion of French forces which succeeded in reestablishing a fragile order. It was during this war that the shrines of Sufi Saints, those historic monuments that had stood in Timbuktu for centuries, were blown up.

Motivated probably by the terrorist attack on a Russian airliner which killed 224 people and the Bamako attack, the Russians have decided to join, at some level, the Western anti-terrorist coalition. Suddenly Vladimir Putin is a persona grata and not a pariah . He says he is quite eager to help. But so long as Russia supports Syria’s President Assad, the Syrian Sunnis will not take up arms to expel Isis. We don’t know what Russia will do and can only watch and wait.

TV Recommendations–The Best in British Detectives

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Unmasking the Villain

The creation of a Metropolitan Police in Britain in 1829 gave rise to the fictional detective hero. Edgar Allan Poe created the first one, C. Auguste Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. Charles Dickens followed with Mr. Bucket in Bleak House in 1852. With a new public desire to find out how crimes are solved, many stories with detectives as protagonists began to appear. In the beginning they were police officers. The sub-genre of the amateur sleuth evolved later. The tradition lives on and has now migrated to the television screen.
Here are three different series which I watch often. All three have a contemporary setting. In each the detective is a police officer. Even though they all involve violent murders, they could be classified as “cozy” inasmuch as the setting is rural and the people often know each other. These are in contrast to the “noir” or hard-boiled genre which usually takes place in a big impersonal city with its “mean streets” and is heavy on physical violence.

DEATH IN PARADISE

This story is a pastiche, a tongue-in-cheek imitation of the classic thirties murder mystery. The setting is the idyllic fictional tropical island of St. Marie. The police chief hero is not a native and is something of a “fish out of water.” He is a bumbling individual and thrashes around but ends up discovering the culprit. Of the Who-dunit, how, where, when and why,the emphasis is on the “how” because the murder seems impossible. But then our hero has his “Aha” moment often caused by something irrelevant to the story. Every traditional gimmick is employed: false confession, red herrings, rehash of the story with everyone involved gathered in a room while the detective eliminates them one by one until he shines the light on the culprit. He or she is of course the least likely individual. It is a formula, and we like its familiarity.

MIDSOMER MURDERS

The setting for this series is the picturesque county of Midsomer with its wealthy inhabitants, Tudor houses, thatched roofs, and impeccably maintained gardens. It has its fetes, garden tours and other English festivities. Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby is a likable fellow, the very essence of Englishness. He is often shown at home with wife and daughter.
Against this idyllic setting, there are sinister crimes, murders of revenge, jealousy, fear of revelations of misdeeds in the past, hatred and betrayal. Unfortunately the plot is so intricate that it is often difficult to follow: many corpses, several overlapping tragedies and sometimes even more than one culprit. The key to unraveling all these happenings is “Why.” Here too the least likely person often turns out to be the villain, (or one of them). Still, it is captivating to watch because the characters are well developed. Also the acting is very good.

INSPECTOR LEWIS

This series is a spin-off of the Inspector Morse mystery series; Inspector Lewis was Inspector Morse’s sidekick. The setting is the beautiful University of Oxford with its population of ambitious and often arrogant professors and dons and its miscellaneous students often overworked and underprepared. Professional rivalries, cheating, betrayals and other shenanigans are on the menu. Again the beautiful architecture and historic traditions are at odds with the sordid machinations of the academics who do not hesitate to stab each other in the back, literally and figuratively. In contrast to Inspector Morse who was an intellectual and opera lover, Inspector Lewis has a working class background and little familiarity with literary quotations. Instead he relies on his common sense, good intuition and hard work. He is stubborn and determined to get to the bottom of a case. Here too the “Why” is the predominant question and the villains are often snotty and arrogant.
In all three series the focus is on the detective, but he is not the central character and his own problems do not intrude and cause a distraction. The suspect is not obvious and is often respectable, a pillar of the community or an admired academic. The solution is credible and derives from the characters and the plot. There is no “Deus ex Machina” or artificial ending. Solving the mystery and unveiling the villain is the goal and it answers our craving to see the murderer identified and punished and order restored.

Fanfare For The Common Man?

Editor’s note: Simone suggested some music to accompany this post. It is Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare For The Common Man.” (there are big drums for the first 30 seconds and then will come music many will recognize)

“Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” is the title of a book by Richard Hofstadter which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. It was written shortly after Adlai Stevenson had lost the Presidential election to Dwight Eisenhower partly because Stevenson was said to be the “egghead” who read books but did not know much about real life.

Hofstadter argues that this kind of anti-intellectualism is deeply ingrained in American culture. He sees it as the fusion of evangelical religion and the business ethos which suggests that practical training should take precedence over book learning. Intellectuals form an elite and Americans are deeply suspicious of elites because they see them as a threat to democratic aspirations. You have to be average to be liked, thus the lowering of culture to the lowest common denominator. Publications like Readers’ Digest and the trivialization of Walt Disney adaptations come to mind. (I am thinking in particular of Winnie the Pooh and Mary Poppins.)

Our founders did not subscribe to this anti-intellectualism. In fact they were suspicious of the masses. They were the heirs of the Enlightenment and very well educated. They loved books and were keenly interested in scientific discovery. But their values were threatened by the Puritan strain exemplified by John Cotton who wrote in 1642:”The more learned and witty you be the more fit to act for Satan you be”. Andrew Jackson was the first president who styled himself as “a man of the people.” I guess they did not use the term “folks” at that time.

Two other books that treat this same theme are Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason” and Isaac Asimov’s “The Cult of Ignorance.” Both report an unfortunate belief shared by many people who don’t have any respect for knowledge and who then say “Democracy means that my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.” Thus the dumbing down of America. We call intellectuals eggheads, nerds, geeks and dorks. About half of Americans between 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries. More than one third consider it “not important” to speak a foreign language. Many think that one’s education needs to lead primarily to immediate financial benefits. One can see this anti-intellectualism still alive in the Republican party and in the utterances of the Tea Party. When they don’t like what science has discovered, they deny it. Rick Santorum called Barack Obama a snob for wanting everybody in America to go to college.

In pre-revolutionary Russia the intelligentsia was the educated, professionally active population. It consisted of spiritual leaders, artists, writers and scientists. The tsars repeatedly tried to clip their wings because they challenged their absolute power. The Russians are very proud of this cultural heritage. The worst insult you can hurl at a Russian is to call him/her “nekulturny” (Not cultured).
Russians cherish their rich history of art, literature, music and ballet. They revere the Bolshoi and Marinsky theaters and the vast collections of history and art in the Hermitage Museum. They are also deeply in love with poetry. Their national hero is Aleksander Pushkin who wrote Eugene Onegin, a novel entirely in verse. I suspect that even Vladimir Putin is proud of this heritage as long as it does not threaten his power.

According to Hofstadter, intellectualism consists not so much in accumulating knowledge and feeling superior about it but rather as a habit of mind. It is being sensitive to nuances and seeing things in degrees rather than in absolutes. It is essentially relativist and skeptical but also circumspect and humane. It also means constantly exploring and widening one’s horizon.