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w e b r i n g
Thursday, April 29, 2004
"This is what I would be if I was the sort of person I think you'd like to meet. Let's talk about that person, shall we?" The misogynous libertarian feels compelled to mention the existence of an ex-wife; the layabout assures us she once quit a marketing job; the straights reminisce about the time they dropped acid. Attempts at legitimizing our authority merely reinforce the legitimacy of the institutions we insist we're more than.
Half the time I don't know what is "real" and what is staged or sarcastic; and that's amusing, but being an outsider, it makes me tend to not believe that anything I read here is sincere, at first. It feels like I am at a party where I don't know anyone except the person who invited me. I stick around listening to in-jokes and "remember the time..." stories; I give an uncomfortable "heh" once in a while. I'm the one in the corner, showing way too much interest in the bookshelf, standing there, drink in hand and my head tilted sideways. I walk over to a conversation and listen, I hear an opportunity to tell a pun, get a laugh or two (and a scowl from Kara), and then I slink away to stare at the bad art hanging in the hallway.
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Wednesday, April 28, 2004
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It’s taken me a long time to recognize how bad my memory is. Part of the problem is that I forget how much I forget. There’s an obvious paradox in this. To know that your memory is bad means remembering, if nothing else, this fact. However it does not mean remembering, in the extreme case, any actual instances of forgetting. I know this because the extreme case applies to me: I have trouble remembering the specific times I’ve failed to remember. What I remember instead, as a kind of placeholder, is the fact of my forgetfulness.
If I had to try and make some sense out of it I guess I would have to say that I worry I'm going to be waiting so long I'll forget what I'm waiting for. Does that make sense? You worry you'll forget what you're waiting for and then you worry one day you'll forget that you are waiting for anything at all. Maybe you'll get up one day and go to work, and after work you'll come home and sit down in front of the TV, for instance. Or the radio or whatever. And you turn the volume down because all of a sudden you have the sense that something's slipped your mind. And you sit there and wonder about it for awhile, your interest is piqued, you know there's something...there's something, but what is it? And finally, you just shake it off. You turn the volume back up. You figure you must have just left something at work or forgot to pick something up from the grocery store, or something like that—something trivial. Surely nothing important. So you shake it off. But what it is—what it really is—and this is the part that gets to me when I start thinking about it—what it really is is this is the exact moment in your life that you've forgotten you're waiting for something.
So then, without even knowing it, this is when you've lost your hope.
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Monday, April 26, 2004
meet the eye
To the team's surprise, a sensory area of the brain called the secondary somatosensory cortex, thought only to respond to physical touch, was strongly activated by the sight of others being touched.
dada's bad dream
This suggests that empathy requires no specialised brain area. The brain simply transforms what we see into what we would have felt in the same situation. "Empathy is not an abstract capacity," Keysers concludes. "It's like you slip into another person's shoes to share the experience in a very pragmatic way."
Even more surprisingly, seeing objects collide generated the same activity. "We expected a big difference," Keysers says, "but the results are not restricted to the social world. In a certain way we share experiences with objects."
This dream universe was populated with enormous things. In some ways, they were like giant machines, shot through with struts and spikes at crazy angles. They were also like vast tangles of wire and stretched, half-melted plastic. They were also like immense solid masses of superheavy metal. They were also somewhat like TV static. They were all these things at once. They were pitch black.
These things were always moving—traveling at furious speed through the sandy desert world. They made noise. The sound doesn't have any real-world analogue, but it's like something awful and alien rattling inside a can that's being violently shaken.
Their purpose in the dream was to annihilate me by colliding with me—sometimes singly, sometimes several at once. They weighed more than a planet. Their mass may actually have been infinite. In some dreams, I was trapped inside one, enclosed within its black depths as it hurtled toward inevitable impact.
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Sunday, April 25, 2004
into the land of bin laden by RYP
Somewhere on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a thunderous whup, whup, whup is the soundtrack to a graceful, intertwining aerial ballet above my head on a cold December morning. Two Huey helicopters are circling a hilltop 500 yards to the east. They zoom in close enough to my perch that I can smell their turbine exhaust and clearly make out a bug-helmeted door gunner gripping his minigun.
The flat, deep sound echoes off the mountains as one Huey prepares to land, feeling for the ground as if hesitant to touch down in this hostile place. The other helicopter dives and swoops behind the hills like an angry hawk, looking for attackers. On each hilltop surrounding the base is a sentry post hastily built of Hescos—four-by-four-by-five-foot-high gray cardboard-and-wire-mesh containers filled with gravel. On top of these are sloppily stacked sandbags and a clutter of ammunition tins; silver loops of concertina wire add a touch of paranoid sparkle. At a distance these makeshift citadels have the look of Crusader castles.
From my own redoubt atop a steep cliff, I overlook a wide valley across the barrel of a battered antiaircraft gun aimed toward Pakistan. Below sits an unnamed armed outpost, a mud fort manned by Special Forces and Afghan troops and unmarked on any official map. Its loaded weapons are pointed at an allied nation; its vehicles and gear are left packed for a hasty departure.
"Your Americans!" says the smiling Afghan soldier who's manning the post alongside me, pointing to the arriving choppers. Outfitted in U.S. Army-style fatigues and blue-tinted fly sunglasses, he is one of about 40 hired guns—"campaigns"—at this base, each of whom make a healthy $150 a month. The tiny base beneath us watches over a well-known mountain pass between the Pakistani city of Miram Shah and its Afghan neighbor, Khost. Between them lies the Durand Line, the official boundary between the two countries that was established by the British in the 19th century and has been ignored ever since.
There are four of these quickly thrown-together bases along this border, the front line of the war on al Qaeda. Miram Shah was a famous supply and R&R base for mujahidin rebels who fought against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, and remains a major smuggling center. The mountainous Pashtun tribal areas between Khost and the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar are also where the U.S. military, the Pakistan government, and others believe Osama bin Laden is hiding. This is the region where bin Laden worked and fought with the muj in the eighties. This is where he helped build the massive cave system at Tora Bora. This is where coordinated attacks against Afghan and American forces continue at their highest rates. Bin Laden is even believed to have used the area around Khost as the backdrop in his videos sent out to threaten the Western world.
For all the secrecy and danger at the front, however, the base was not hard to locate, or to reach. Informants in Khost, easy to spot with their $800 Thuraya satellite phones and eager American slang, gave us directions. The bearded Afghan commander of this firebase seemed unsurprised to see an unarmed American show up at his front gate in a battered yellow taxi.
I am back in Afghanistan almost two years to the day after the start of the war in late 2001. Back then, my host was Northern Alliance general Abdul Rashid Dostum. I had traveled alongside a covert American Special Forces team who, it could be said, turned the tide of the war. I was at Qala Jangi when the famous Taliban prisoner uprising occurred, when John Walker Lindh was captured, and when the first American combat casualty of the war turned out to be a CIA paramilitary, Johnny "Mike" Spann. At the time of my five-week visit this winter, the U.S. military had just kicked off Operation Avalanche, which will send some 2,000 troops and hundreds of helicopter sorties into the border area around Khost. Their goal is to eliminate both the resurgent remnants of the Taliban (the indigenous radical group that took over the country in the mid-1990s) and the loose network of foreign, mostly Arab, extremists known collectively as al Qaeda. In 2001 Dostum and the Regulators, as my companions in the Special Forces unit dubbed themselves, were practically brothers-in-arms by the end of their campaign. But two years is a long time, especially in this part of the world, and I was anxious to see how Afghanistan's hosts were getting along with their American guests.
What I quickly learned was that in the borderland, the enemy has returned in force and the Americans and Afghans are attacked and ambushed on a regular basis. The U.S. has already abandoned two of its four outposts, those in nearby Lwarra and Shinkai. The others, soldiers here tell me, come under increasingly frequent attack and occasionally change hands between the Afghans, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Americans.
The attacks come from the Pakistani side and almost always happen at night. The Afghan regulars say that the fiercest begin with rockets, followed by rocket-propelled grenades, and finally three-wave assaults: One waiting to advance, one lying down to fire, and one advancing to repeat the process. Often, the mystery attackers take the base from the Afghans for a few hours, only to be chased out by arriving American air support or daylight. The nearby border-patrol base at Shinkai came under fierce attack in August. When the sun came up, the rudimentary base was surrounded by more than 20 dead bodies, their identities a mystery. One Afghan fighter insisted that the attackers couldn't possibly have been Islamic fundamentalists. "The bodies were already rotting the next day," he told me. "We could smell alcohol. They had been drinking cheap wine."
As I scan the area through my binoculars from my clifftop aerie, to the right I can see rolling foothills, steep valleys, and widely spaced scrub pine trees. Off to the left, in the foreground, is a mountain from which my Afghan hosts say the frequent rocket attacks have been coming. Far below us on the dusty road, colorful and overloaded jinga trucks clank and groan as they bring goods from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Or to be more accurate, toward Afghanistan. One reason that bin Laden and former Taliban leader Mullah Omar are still at large is that things can get fuzzy in the Pashtun borderlands. The U.S. military denies that any of these bases along the Duran Line, armed by Afghans and utilized by American forces, are situated outside of Afghan territory. Maybe my GPS is acting up, though. It indicates that I'm standing eight kilometers inside Pakistan.
At the landing area, the two Hueys depart, leaving a group of silver-haired officers, each wearing a bulletproof vest and a pistol. Driving toward the base are two armored tan Humvees, a beige camouflage pickup with an orange marker panel on top, and a brown-and-green-camo Land Rover to transport the VIPs, all followed by a convoy of Toyota pickup trucks overflowing with Afghan troops who wave and show off their heavy weapons and their new sand goggles, shooting gloves, and sunglasses.
I walk over from my perch and casually begin talking to the assembled American soldiers guarding the landing area. This looks like part of Task Force 121, an elite group drawn from the U.S. Army Special Forces, Delta Force, Navy SEALs, and CIA paramilitaries and ordered to hunt for "high-value targets." (The group's existence—and ability to operate inside of countries, like Pakistan, where conventional US. forces are not stationed—was a closely held secret until the New York Times reported its existence in November.) The group here comprises a sergeant from the U.S. Army's 20th Special Forces Group, a unit of Army reservists shipped in from Alabama, a young Air Force Combat Controller, and an unshaven American in civilian clothes: khakis, photographer's vest, hiking boots. He wears Oakley shades and keeps a finger-forward grip on a battered AK-47—an unusual weapon for an American, even in this neck of the woods, and the mark of a contractor rather than a soldier. He quickly leaves after the convoy disappears.
I strike up a conversation with a young sergeant. He has a wispy beard and his M4 rifle has been spray-painted brown and tan. He seems a little rattled by the recent attacks in the area. "We got hit pretty bad a few weeks ago," he tells me, adjusting his dirty Jack Daniels cap. "Six guys in our unit got Purple Hearts. [Our air support] can't chase them all the way back into Pakistan. So we just wait up here to get hit again."
He points to a spot a little more than a mile away. "They fire rockets right from that hill on the Pak side. The joke is we meet with the Pak officials every month right on the border. They smile, we smile, they B.S. us and we B.S. them. Then they watch us get attacked without lifting a finger."
I ask him if the men who attacked him were Taliban, Pakistanis, or Arabs. He looks up at me and squints in the sun and spits.
"I have no idea who we are fighting."
In the chaos of the ground war in 2001, having a go-between like General Dostum had been invaluable. He kept me informed and, on more than one occasion, kept me alive. On this visit, I knew that if I was going to understand the situation in the Taliban-friendly borderlands, I needed the support of a local potentate. The word in Kabul was that 120 members of the Pashtun leadership were holding a meeting in a compound outside of Gardez, a few hours south of the capital. The meeting had been called to discuss the new national constitution, and why most of them had been left out of the ratification process.
It is there, during a break between the endless discussions, that I was introduced to a man everyone calls Hajji, who had been railing at the group about the need for the king (how they describe the nation's ruler) to be a Muslim and married to an Afghan and for Pashtu to be the official language of the new nation. In Pashtun greetings, the palms-out, half-lean-forward air kiss is for strangers and the big bear hug and double buss is reserved for good friends. Hajji gives me the air kiss and holds my hands while he talks to me. The fiftysomething elder from the Khost area, with his big white beard, large turban, and ready smile does not stand out from the others, but he seems to command a special respect from them. Hajji is well known from his days as a mujahidin commander fighting the Russians and, before that, as a cross-border trucking czar and drug smuggler. He was also a supporter of the Taliban back when they were better known for crushing warlords than for hosting al Qaeda. He's now retired but remains a man who can be called upon to resolve critical problems and defend the weak. Without hesitation he invites me to stay at his home for a week, on the condition that I not reveal its exact location or his full name.
I am surprised that we drive to his home in a beat-up Toyota hatchback with Dubai plates. His son is behind the wheel. "Only NGOs and the Americans drive big cars around here," Hajji says. "I keep my Land Cruiser in the garage." Hajji sits in the front seat, carefully telling his son which routes to take and which to avoid. "Mines," he explains. When we pass the shrine of shaheeds (Taliban martyrs), Hajji holds his palms up in prayer. Martyrdom is a powerful force here; the Taliban and the Arabs who have died in this war and the war against the Russians are revered even by their enemies.
Afghan society is structured along ethnic lines and divided into tribes. These tribes are led by elders, whose power comes from consensus among the members of the tribe. It is a democracy at its simplest, with a dash of feudalism. The elders do not lead solely by dictate but rather by suggestion. They are called upon to meet and make decisions on legal, family, property, and other disputes. To disagree of an elder is to risk confrontation and ostracism. Even Afghanistan's interim president, Hamid Karzai, cannot order or demand something from an elder, for if his request is refused he has no recourse and thus loses face. In the Pashtun regions, the elders typically accommodated the Taliban. Recent rumors from the area suggest that bin Laden still travels between Gardez and Khost, the historical center of Taliban and foreign jihadi strength.
A measure of Hajji's importance is that he lives in one of the largest compounds in the Gardez area. Each of the four walls is more than 900 feet long and 30 feet high. (He is known as Hajji in honor of his having made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Ironically, "Hajji" is also an all-purpose derogatory term used by American soldiers to refer to local Afghans.) The compound sits on a barren plain just outside of town under the dramatic backdrop of the Taliban-infested mountains around the U.S. firebase at Gardez. In the mountains to the south is the deadly Shahikot valley, the location of March 2002's Operation Anaconda in which eight American servicemen died trying to dislodge al Qaeda holdouts. Beyond that is the mountain redoubt of Zawar Kili, another massive cave system built by bin Laden in the 1980s to defend against the Russians. To the north and east are poppy fields.
Inside the compound is a guest house and beyond that two more walled areas, one for Hajji's family and the other for his crops. His home is designed for maximum defensibility. Even the outside toilet, a long walk up a rickety ladder, has three gun ports. Each corner of the compound has a large square tower for defense, and every section is fully stocked with weapons and ammunition. The towers used to have antiaircraft guns, Hajji tells me, but he removed them out of fear of being bombed by the Americans.
Hajji and I immediately fell into a thrice-daily pattern of a long meal served on the floor, followed by endless cups of green tea and hours of conversation through a translator. The first night we engaged in small talk. His stance was neutral. Yes, he supported the Americans, he said, even though he still seemed to harbor resentment over something that happened in 2001; he wouldn't specify what it was. Yes, he thought the Taliban were finished. The second night we discussed more detailed concerns: There is violence here, no government, only one school but no teachers. By the third night, as the remains of dinner were picked up and tea was poured, Hajji was more forthcoming. I asked him if the reports of the Taliban's return to the area were true.
"Yes, they come here. Usually at night. They ask for food or shelter. They do not stay long, and we do not ask them where they are going. In some cases they intimidate people, and in other cases they pay. But they seem to know who to talk to. In every group of 20 or so Taliban there are four or five Arabs. They need to be with the Afghans because they do not know the way and they do not speak the language."
Hajji has enough stature to speak his mind about the Taliban, but even he sees the need to be cautious when discussing the Arabs. "People do not like the Arabs here because they are arrogant and act superior to the Afghans." He laughs. "We like to say they are more interested in taking videos than in fighting."
It is clear that al Qaeda is still here and still intimidates. Back at the tribal meeting before Hajji invited me to stay with him, I asked to stay with another prominent elder from the border region, and the long-bearded man replied," You are welcome to stay, but the Arabs will leave a letter at my door that unless you leave the next day they will kill me and my family." I thanked him for his offer and accepted Hajji's invitation.
"During the jihad against the Russians, there were people in every village who would cook food and help us," Hajji says. "No one ever worried about being betrayed or discovered. No one even posted sentries. Now these same people are scared when they see the Talibs or the Arabs. The Arabs have to use sat phones to communicate and sneak into villages at 3 a.m., usually leaving before light the next day."
Hajji says he first me bin Laden in the 1980s, when the wealthy young Saudi was helping mujahidin from the Pakistani town of Peshawar. Pakistanis secret service (Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI) had given Hajji three truckloads of rockets but no way to transport them back to Afghanistan. "What was I going to do with three truckloads of rockets? The ISI told us that Osama had an office near the University of Peshawar and to go and ask him for help."
"The odd thing about Osama was that he used to work only on Fridays. We went to his office and filled out an application so that he would pay for the camels and mules. They wanted to know things like how much the rockets weighed." Since Hajji wasn't with one of the Saudi-backed mujahidin commanders, bin Laden said he couldn't help them and sent them on their way.
What does he think of bin Laden now?
He pauses as he sips his tea. "I never thought that bin Laden would turn into something like this. I just thought that he was someone helping the mujahidin."
Is bin Laden winning in Afghanistan?
"I don't think Osama will succeed. The Afghans are tired of migrating and fighting.
Where does he think bin Laden is?
"Chitral would be the most likely place." Chitral is a valley town on the Pakistani side of the border. "That is where people traditionally hide from those who seek them. There is little movement there in the winter. The airplanes don't work well that high up, and you will know when people are coming. Bin Laden knows the tribal areas very well, and the tribes know him very well." His answer makes sense but doesn't quite ring true somehow. Bin Laden's Pakistani biographer recently told CNN that he believes bin Laden is roaming southeast Afghanistan, and that his latest videotape was shot near Gardez. My guess is that Hajji probably has a pretty good idea where bin Laden is, but knows that it would be dangerous for an Afghan to be known to possess such information. A close friend of his was sent to Guantanomo Bay for knowing the same people that Hajji knows.
What about Mullah Omar?
"Mullah Omar was in Miram Shah during Ramadan and has now moved to Quetta [a Pakistani border city] for the winter." This time his tone is matter-of-fact. He doesn't say how he knows this, but his guess coincides with Karzai's statements that Omar and other senior Taliban have been spotted at prayers in Quetta, long a bastion of Taliban support.
Despite having worked with the Taliban, Hajji has little good to say about their reign in Afghanistan.
"I men many times with Mullah Omar and all the other Taliban commanders. They were not educated men. They were not even good Muslims. The Taliban took all the prostitutes to Kandahar, and the Arabs were all screwing around. In time, they considered themselves separate from the people. To them a foot soldier was more trustworthy that a tribal elder."
What does he think of the Taliban now?
"There are two categories of Taliban: the jihadis, who want martyrdom, and the people who fight for money."
Hajji places himself in neither category.
"The Taliban are not Pashtun. We have dancing, we sing, we make decisions in jirgas [traditional voting councils]." The Taliban, Hajji says, are entranced by Wahhabis, the Saudi-backed religious extremists. "Afghans do not like Wahhabis. The Taliban relied on other people and lost touch with the Afghan people. That is why, in the end, the Taliban could never be governors, only occupiers."
What about the Americans?
"I can guarantee you that Americans will not succeed. They rely on people they pay money to. Now they are surrounded by people who want money. They have turned away from the tribal elders and made bad friends."
I ask him which ruler he would choose if he had to: the corrupt Taliban or the American-backed Karzai.
"I try not to involve myself with these things," he says with disgust. It is clear neither has his full support, perhaps because both seem to view the role of tribal elders as increasingly irrelevant under the new system.
From the early morning until late into the night, the sky above the compound is filled with Apaches, Blackhawks, Chinooks, B1-B bombers, and jet fighters. At night, after our talks, I leave the warm, damp guest house and climb up the rough-hewn ladder to the walls. Above me, stars are sprayed across the sky. I listen to muffled booms and automatic gunfire. I watch the blue-gas triangles of afterburners and listen to the sound of blacked-out helicopters ferrying troops. In the crisp, frosty mornings, the sky is etched with contrails from bombers; low-flying helicopters return from missions, and, later in the day, unmanned Predators whistle through the sky.
One day while driving around on a tour of Gardez, Hajji tells me that he is in the midst of mediating a dispute. A widow was found in her room with a man. The man was shot dead by members of her family, and the woman sought shelter in a house of a neighbor. The widow's family wants her returned so that she can be stoned to death, and has informed the family giving her refuge that they have 40 days to turn her over. How this will be resolved is unclear, but he is certain she will pay with her life. Hajji shows me the spot already chosen for her stoning.
In an attempt to explain bin Laden's ability to hide in this region, much has been written about the Pashtun code of hospitality, sanctuary and revenge. Melmastia is automatic hospitality shown to visitors without expectation of reward; nanawatey is the obligation to provide sanctuary to those who seek it, even at the risk of one's own life; and badal is the righting of wrongs, regardless of how much time has passed. Hajji insists on the necessity of a system in which the entire family and tribe takes responsibility for the act of one person, even if that requires stoning one's own daughter for promiscuity. The goal is to resolve disputes with finality and allow the tribes or families to coexist peacefully once the sentence has been carried out or reparations paid. Penalties, he says, can be simple as fines or as drastic as death, but justice must be done.
Later, at the compound, lit by the yellow glow of a propane light, Hajji explains to me how one tribe or group can sometimes take over or resolve another group's blood feud. When an injustice is done and a tribe is weak, he says, another tribe or elder may take up their feud. The weaker tribe is then indebted to the stronger one. This is a natural way to build power. Hajji says this explains not only how the Taliban are indebted to bin Laden but why they insist on revenge at all costs.
In the Pashtun worldview, a wrong that has been done to one person has been committed against an entire tribe. Hajji cites as an example an American bombing raid that happened nearby a few days ago, in which nine children were killed.
"When will this wrong be righted?" he asks.
I grow to like Hajji, and he treats me like a son. He insists that I sit on his right-hand side. He urges me to eat the best part of the sheep and won't clear the vinyl eating mat until I have eaten to his satisfaction. He makes sure I sit on the warmest part of the floor. He pesters me to grow my beard out and tugs at it every day as if that will speed the process.
That night, Hajji tells me a story that he had been reluctant to share. In December 2001, as it became obvious that al Qaeda and the Taliban were truly beaten, Hajji and 80 other tribal elders headed off toward Kabul to meet with Karzai, who had returned to Afghanistan as interim prime minister. En route they were stopped by the warlord Pacha Khan Zadran, who refused to let them pass. "Khan is a simple man, a former truck driver who was working with the Americans then. He told us that we could not go to Kabul because Karzai is not the legitimate king of Afghanistan. We knew we couldn't get by him, so we turned around and chose another route, one we knew from the mujahidin days," he says. "We called the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad [Pakistan's capital] and the UN and told them we were driving on this road and not to bomb us.
"That night we could not get over a mountain pass, so we turned around. Then I heard jets. They hit the trucks behind me first, and I ran as fast as I could."
The bombing began at around 9 p.m. and continued until four the next morning. Eleven elders were killed and 20 others wounded. Some 40 Afghans in surrounding villages were also killed. Hajji, however, seems most concerned about having lost a pickup truck in the bombing.
"The Americans continue to search our women, bomb our houses, and kill our children. Even Karzai said they were wrong and promised to replace my pickup. But nothing has been done." Hajji does not seem to be angry, just stating fact.
"There is a saying the Pashtuns have that if you take your revenge in a hundred years, you are rushing things."
Hajji looks upward in an exaggerated supplication to heaven, then lowers his gaze straight at me. "Now God has sent an American to me so that I can trade him for a new pickup truck." He laughs with goofy, rasping laugh, but I check his face carefully to make sure it was a joke.
The next morning, Hajji picks a driver to take me to the "secret" base by sending his oldest son to the taxi stand. He tells his son to make sure the driver is a member of their own Ahmadzai tribe. Out in the countryside, that is more important than a truckful of armed guards, for if someone harms him or his passengers, they will have to deal with Hajji and anyone else he brings into the blood feud. His instructions to the young driver are to "go where he goes and never leave." He also sends for a local doctor, someone educated who speaks English, to act as my interpreter and guide. A few hours later, our tiny crew sets off in a battered yellow taxi. The stereo blared Hindi pop songs and the road dust swirled around our heads as we drove into Taliban territory. The first thin my driver tells me is how he made a lot of money driving Arabs escaping from Gardez to Khost after the war. He drove the highway with his tiny Toyota Corolla wagon loaded with the Arabs and their families, weaving around burning Hilux pickup trucks, ripped corpses, and craters. The Americans would attack trucks and Land Cruisers but let taxis go through. It is no coincidence that when Afghan eyewitnesses saw bin Laden leave Jalalabad in a convoy of fighters in December 2001, he was riding in a small white Corolla hatchback.
As we begin to climb toward the Shahikot mountains, I'm told that we are officially in Taliban territory. "The fighters will watch from the mountains and if they see a suspicious vehicle they will stop it or attack it," my driver tells me. This is the same area the Taliban stopped a Christian Science Monitor reporter's car and beat the off-duty driver when they discovered there was no journalist inside to be kidnapped. Thankfully, our well-worn taxi is just as invisible to the Taliban as it was to Americans.
After cooling my heels for a couple of hours at the American outpost's landing area, waiting for the officers to depart, I once again bump into the American with the AK-47—the Contractor, as I'll call him. He starts off not with a greeting, but with a warning. "They're not gonna let you cross into Pakistan."
I ask him who "they" are.
"T.F.," is this curt reply. Task Force.
Apparently, some quick videotaping I did earlier has not gone over well. "You've filmed their base and vehicles. If the bad guys catch you across the border, they will use it to hit this place."
He asks how I got here without getting attacked. "Did you see those antennas on all four corners of that pickup truck?" he says, pointing to one of his vehicles. "Those are jammers. People around here bury antitank mines and then detonate them with cell phones or car-alarm triggers. They hire kids to sit and wait for Americans. They tried to kill [President Pervez] Musharraf yesterday, and his jamming system was the only thing that saved him.
"Delta can't figure how you got here in one piece. I am sure they are looking you up right now." He smiles, then walks off.
I head down to the main firebase. The once friendly Afghan commander quickly approaches. "You came here to take pictures," he says. "You have enough pictures, now please go." His orders are to get me off this hill and going the opposite direction of Pakistan. Then, in a typical Afghan gesture, he asks me to join him for lunch before leaving.
The Contractor reappears as I am packing to leave and inquires about my destination. I tell him I've been staying at Gardez with Hajji and invite him to join me. The opportunity to go through Taliban-friendly territory obviously intrigues him. He tosses his battered mountaineering backpack into the ancient taxi. We start to head back toward Khost, but first I insist that we stop at a small market a few miles from the base. Sixty dollars turns me new American friend into a rough facsimile of a bearded farmer, complete with wool hat, waistcoat, and light blue salwar kameez tunic. Satisfied we both look like idiots—but Afghan-looking idiots—we take off.
As we head into the series of switchbacks that mark the start of the mountains, the Contractor starts to loosen up. Despite his initial bluster, he is not used to being so exposed, so out in the open. As we come up on various Taliban checkpoints, he drills me on how to evacuate the car from the same side, how to keep a pistol under my leg, and how the windshield will deflect rounds. We have a long time to talk on the ride, bouncing and rattling down the potholed dirt roads. He agrees to answer some questions about his work, but makes clear he won't talk about anything that might harm his mission and asks that neither he nor his home base be identified. I agree.
"These days the Agency has plenty of money, so it's easier just to hire us than to rain new people," he says. He is one of about a hundred paramilitaries operating along the border. "There are the soldier-of-fortune, beer-swilling, raucous, ring-wearing types, you see in town. Then there's us, the guys who are into fitness, in their late 20s to late 40s." Most of the operators are "sheep-dipped," he says, serving in some official capacity to provide a plausible military or civilian cover but actually working "black ops," top secret operations that are never revealed in their military CV.
"Working in Afghanistan is pretty easy," he says. "I was contracted at about $150K a year. You sign up, train up, and fly in. Most of the operations go into Tashkent [in neighboring Uzbekistan] via commercial and then to Kabul on a military flight. You land there, and they pick you up in a truck and check you in at the hotel. Nobody asks any questions. You don't show ID except for the helo ride to the base.
"They divide you into teams. 'Victory' are the security guys; 'Eagle' are the hunter-killers; 'Wolf' do escorts and surveillance; and 'Viper' is the rapid-response team for case officers who get into trouble. You check in, get a couple days in town, and then talk to the chief of the base. You get your walking papers and fly out to Khost, Ghazni, Kandahar, or wherever you're going." The going wage for most contractors, he says, is $1,000 to $1,250 a day, slightly better than in Iraq. Three months is the usual tour of duty. "People get freaky if you leave them out here more than 90 days."
Our driver and interpreter, whom I've dubbed "Doc," stare straight ahead, looking for freshly disturbed potholes, where Taliban like to hide remote-detonated mines. I've told them that the Contractor is my cameraman, and he is enjoying his undercover role as sidekick. He uses GPS to mark checkpoints and track the road as we travel up into higher altitudes. The checkpoints, manned by Taliban and warlords' foot soldiers, are simply speed bumps followed by armed men who stare into the front of the taxi. My driver boldly waves them off and keeps going. I try to look as Pashtun as a blue-eyed feringhi, or foreigner, can. I tuck my glasses in my pocket, pulling by dirty brown blanket tightly around my face and staring impassively out the front window. With his heavy beard, the Contractor looks more like an Afghan than I ever will. We somehow easily pass through four more checkpoints where both trucks and passenger vehicles are being stopped and emptied.
The first base the Contractor was assigned to, he tells me, was set up in the most remote area that could be resupplied by helicopter. "They flew us in dark on a nighttime resupply mission on a CIA Russian helo—a bird that wouldn't say 'Here come the Americans.'" A four-truck convoy came out to meet them. The new crew hopped off, the old crew hopped on, and the helicopter was gone.
"When i first saw the terrain through the NVGs [night-vision goggles], all I could think of was the surface of the moon. There was nothing but stars, rocks, and a medieval mud fort in the distance. Inside there is this big bearded guy with a Western hat, warming himself over a diesel fire in a 50 gallon drum. He sees us, laughs this crazy laugh, with his face lit by the fire, and yells out, 'Gentleman, welcome to the edge of the empire!' Man, I got the crazies when I heard that."
Some of the men in Task Force, the Contractor says, are recent ex-military brought in through the trusted old-boy networks, but most are Special Forces, Delta, and members of the elite SEAL Team Six, recruited in advance of discharge. "The line between traditional military and covert work is blurring. People make fun of the Agency, but all the Special Forces guys are trying to work for there. You get whatever you need, you don't get messed with, you have your own chain of command, and you don't answer to the local military commander. You travel on your own passport using a tourist visa."
The hunt for bin Laden, he says, is not like the hunt for Saddam, with thousands of troops looking under every carpet and behind every tree. Even the Pakistanis can't operate in the tribal areas without serious backlash.
"Our job is to shake the apple tree," the Contractor says. "We aren't hunting bin Laden from the top. Our strategy is to focus on the little guys. Just like how they do drug busts in the States. Put the heat on the runners and little guys until they get nervous and start contacting higher. Then we intercept their calls and the hunt begins. We are just hired killers. Guns with legs."
The Taliban, he says, aren't a priority. "Mullah Omar is not an issue for the U.S. government. We are looking for al Qaeda, or whatever you want to call al Qaeda. These days that's pretty much shorthand for a foreign national—an Arab, Pakistani, or whatever. We are looking for people connected to bin Laden.
"We ask simple questions like, Where do they sleep at night? Once we can find where they sleep, we can monitor them. When we find the house, we can pick up any electronic communications and send them directly to Langley, [British intelligence in] Cheltenham, or Washington.
"Once you find their base, you don't want to hit 'em; you let 'em talk and use that intel to roll up the lower-level people. We can do voiceprint on them and even know who they're talking to if that person is in the database. If they set up a meeting or give us a GPS location, somebody might get hit the next day. If they still don't contact higher-ups, then you snatch another guy or make him disappear. You do that a couple times and they will get nervous."
The Contractor adjusts his rust-colored wool hat and admires his Afghan look in the mirror. Doc, I notice, has been listening intently.
"The trouble is that we are doing this inside Pakistan," he says. "That's why you need a contractor. Our government can say that 'we' are not going into Pakistan. But you can be damn sure that white boys are going into Pakistan and shooting bad guys."
He shifts his AK, then smiles. "These days the Agency is looking for Mormons and Born Agains. People with a lot of patriotism and the need to do good. At least we start that way." Most of the contractors at his base spend their downtime working out, running sprints between the helicopter pad and back, and doing triceps presses with big rocks.
"We like to stay in shape. When you're in combat, you want to make sure you're using everything you got. You want to make sure you take a few guys with you even if you only have your bare hands. Most of us are into steroids big-time. D-balls [Dianabol] to bulk you up and Sustanon to help you maintain what you gained. The doctors turn a blind eye to it. We get stuff across the border in Pakistan. When you see guys bulked up, you know what they are on. We keep control of it though.
"I don't drink, smoke, or eat crap," he says, smiling. "My only weaknesses? Pepsi and women."
Hajji welcomes me with the bear hug and double buss of a prodigal son. He quickly senses that my friend is much more than a cameraman—in addition to carrying an AK and Oakleys, the Contractor has a habit of pacing 20 yards back and forth as if doing a security sweep, and he scans every room he enters for hostile elements. But since the Contractor is my friend, he is welcomed without question.
At dinner, Hajji wants to know all about my trip. He pushes food directly in front of the Contractor: choice cuts of greasy mutton with fresh bread and a dish—specially prepared by Hajji's wife for the guests—of what seems to be curdled milk with oil poured into it. The new guest keeps his arms folded and declines, mumbling, "Gotta get to 10 percent body fat." Hajji makes several attempts before giving up, stares hard at the Contractor, then looks at me. "Just pretend to eat something and compliment the food," I mutter. He doesn't take the advice. The Contractor frequently stands up in the middle of the hours-long meal, making excuses about having to shoot some video. When he leaves the room for good, Hajji turns to me and asks, through the interpreter, "What's wrong with your friend?"
The scene is repeated at each breakfast, lunch, and dinner for three days. The Contractor mostly stays silent. He appears genuinely interested in the conversation but doesn't seem to know how to interact with Afghans who aren't informers. We are usually joined by two of Hajji's sons and an ever changing parade of locals who've come to ask favors from the elder. Hajji's brother visits with his three-year-old grandson and occasionally asks me to come by and try to fix his satellite phone. The Contractor refuses to eat even a grain of rice, and I come to dread Hajji's stonefaced looks in my direction. Hajji even tries shopping for us himself, apologizing for not having eggs at one breakfast because it is too cold for the chickens to lay. The Contractor, meanwhile, gets by on Atkins Bars and sips bottled water, pulled from his pack at daybreak and before bedtime.
Hajji adamantly wants his opinion of the recent bombings to reach someone of authority inside the American forts. Finally, on the third day, he breaks out of Pashtun protocol and tells the Contractor the jist of what he has already told me about the increasing frustration that the tribal elders have with the Americans. He has received word that a family of eight has been found dead in an abandoned house in the nearby town of Seyyed Karam. How he knows the details of their deaths so soon is a mystery to me.
"A local thug lived there for 18 years and has been threatening to rocket the meeting in Kabul," Hajji tells us. "An informer called the Americans, but by the time the air attack took place the man was long gone. Instead another man and his family were hiding out in the house because the man had killed someone in a property dispute. He, his wife, and his six children were found buried under a wall."
Hajji explains that the people in town are upset. Not about the fugitive, since this was perceived as an odd form of justice, but for the man's innocent wife and children, who had no quarrel with the Americans or townspeople.
"This man could have been arrested with a minimum of violence, but the Americans chose to attack the house with aircraft and weapons designed to destroy tanks."
What's going on is clear to Hajji. "The informers are making money from both sides." The Contractor says he understands, and the meal ends in silence.
After breakfast I thank Hajji for his hospitality. He talks to me like a clucking mother hen, pushing me to get a move on and to stop messing around with my camera. He is in a hurry to have us go in case we are spotted outside of his compound. Across the horizon, the rotors of Blackhawks slice through the crisp morning air. As we pack up, I don't bother to relay Hajji's repeated joke about keeping one American to exchange for his lost pickup truck. I don't think the Contractor would find it funny.
On our way back toward the border, the Contractor wants to stop in at another base and talk to someone from OGA, or "other government agencies," a euphemistic term used to describe high-level clandestine operators from the CIA, FBI, and other groups that don't fit into traditional military structure. He seems eager to pass along Hajji's complaints about the Americans' use of excessive force and reliance on double-dealing snitches. I stay outside.
He emerges shaking his head. "Seems the OGA guy wouldn't even get off his cot to say hi. He just sent his local peon to say he already had the intel."
The Contractor holds up a stack of dirty Pakistani rupees. "The puke said thanks and here are some rupees for the cab ride." He shakes his head. "Company policy is to always give something to someone bringing intel."
Looking at the pile of grubby notes, he shakes his head. "That's f----d, man."
To be fair, the idea than an armed American civilian would just stroll into a firebase with relevant information about the Taliban might give any official pause; also, I assume OGAs prefer to work only with established intelligence sources. But it is clear that being on the other end of a wad of dirty rupees ticks off the Contractor.
"A while back, Rumsfeld said we might be creating more enemies than we are killing," he says, getting back into the car. "Well, duh. Before last summer, we had Yale graduates hiding in hotels, using the phone to meet informants inside bazaars. Their idea of intelligence work was posing as a cell phone engineer, setting up meetings, and handing informants five hundred bucks every time they handed over information. Good or bad."
The lack of good relations with the local population compounded the security problems, he says. "When you do a madrasah hit"—that is, a raid on an Islamic secondary school—"the locals get pissed. You don't always find bad guys, but everyone gets slammed to the ground, zip-tied, bagged, and tagged. You forget to give them a hundred bucks at the door and they'll swear to get you. They will, too. The next time the Americans are up on patrol in their Dumbvees, they are set up."
But he insists things are improving. "Now we want to get inside the heads of the people we are dealing with. We want a softer, more personal relationship, instead of basing transactions on money. Just like when you meet with people. People trust you because they like you, not because you pay them."
At the end of January 2004, the American general in charge of operations in Afghanistan declared that bin Laden would be captured this year. Newspapers published an outline for a major spring offensive that would include U.S. troops in the mountainous borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Musharraf immediately responded by saying that U.S. troops were not welcome in Pakistan.
"For some reason Pakistan is still like the Catholic Church, where you have sanctuary," the Contractor tells me. "The bad guys are inside Pakistan using Pakistani protection to attack Americans inside Afghanistan and then running back knowing they won't be chased. Hopefully, things will change."
For now, though, covert operations continue and Task Force looks for excuses to cross the border, the Contractor says. An American civilian operating inside Pakistan could need help, which gives the U.S. military a reason to cross the border in support, hot pursuit, or just to call in mortar and air fire on nebulous "bad guys."
This new war depends on men, like the Contractor, willing to work and fight in a shadowland largely beyond the reach of U.S. power. I ask him if there's an extraction plan if a mission in Pakistan gets messy. "The extraction plan is that once you are across the border you are on your own. There is no uplift. You are screwed if things go wrong." But that vulnerability is essential to the role of a contractor. "You are not in the federal system, or in the military system," he says. "You are deniable, disposable, and deletable."
That independence—and the secrecy that goes with it—is part of the Contractor's code. And, as far as he is concerned, it should remain inviolate even in death. "We have lost two guys set up and ambushed," he says. "We lost a case officer in a training accident. That, along with Spann getting killed in the middle of an interrogation, adds four CIA operators killed in this war." Traditionally, the CIA does not disclose an operative's connection to the Agency, even if he is killed. But in those four cases, the Agency released the men's identities to the public, and action the Contractor sees as a breach of faith even if it means both men are honored as heroes.
"This is a war where terrorists have global reach," he says. When the identities of operatives are disclosed, " it exposes the tradecraft and leaves the wives and families exposed." While willing to live and even die according to the harsh code of his tribe, the Contractor now finds himself embittered at seeing that code compromised.
The Contractor asks me to leave him off a short distance from his base. He doesn't want to have to explain what he was doing driving around in Taliban territory in a taxicab. I say good-bye to him near his little mud fort at the edge of the empire and carry on in my little yellow taxi.
[:: comment! :]
Sunday, April 25, 2004
the salon interview: neal stephenson by laura miller
Rumor had it that Neal Stephenson would follow "Cryptonomicon," his bestselling 1999 novel combining present-day high-tech entrepreneurs and World War II-era derring-do, with a similar tale of fugitive data and high adventure set sometime in the near future. Last year, with the publication of the first of the three-volume "Baroque Cycle," "Quicksilver," Stephenson revealed that he'd turned the dial on his time machine in the other direction. "Quicksilver," written by hand with a fountain pen in an alcove lined with a huge map of early 18th-century London, immersed the author and his legions of devoted readers in one of the most intellectually exciting and politically momentous periods of history. It was the age of such scientific geniuses as Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz and the undersung polymath Robert Hooke, and also the time when our modern economic systems began to take form.
Unusual subjects for fiction, perhaps, but Stephenson makes the "Baroque Cycle" a weirdly effective mix of high-octane tutorial and ripping yarn. To balance such cerebral characters as Newton and Daniel Waterhouse (Puritan ancestor of the Waterhouses, crack mathematicians and programmers, in "Cryptonomicon"), he introduces Jack Shaftoe, aka the King of the Vagabonds and his sometime-paramour turned countess and financial whiz, Eliza. Shaftoe, like his descendant Bobby in "Cryptonomicon," skips from one outlandish but irresistibly entertaining exploit to the next, barely escaping with his skin intact: war, thieves, prison, pirates -- you name it. As for Eliza, well, she's the kind of girl who encrypts top-secret military information in her cross-stitch embroidery and surreptitiously handles the investments of half the court of Louis XIV. The second volume in the "Cycle," "The Confusion," published on April 19, continues the saga, with an even more lavish serving of the feats of Jack and Eliza.
Stephenson found time for an interview during the course of a road trip, in a borrowed 40-foot R.V., across the high desert of Washington state from Spokane to his home in Seattle. It was a long conversation.
What inspired the "Baroque Cycle"?
It was an unexpected byproduct of "Cryptonomicon." One of the things I wanted to talk about in that book was the history of computing and its relationship to society. I was talking to Stephen Horst, a philosophy professor at Wesleyan, and he mentioned that Newton for the last 30 years of his life did very little in the way of science as we normally think of it. His job was to run the Royal Mint at the Tower of London. I'd been thinking a lot about gold and money, which were themes in "Cryptonomicon."
At the same time, I read a book by George Dyson called "Darwin Among the Machines," in which he talks about the deep history of computing and about Leibniz and the work he did on computers. It wasn't just some silly adding machine or slide rule. Leibniz actually thought about symbolic logic and why it was powerful and how it could be put to use. He went from that to building a machine that could carry out logical operations on bits. He knew about binary arithmetic. I found that quite startling. Up till then I hadn't been that well informed about the history of logic and computing. I hadn't been aware that anyone was thinking about those things so far in the past. I thought it all started with [Alan] Turing. So, I had computers in the 17th century. There's this story of money and gold in the same era, and to top it all off Newton and Leibniz had this bitter rivalry. I decided right away that I was going to have to write a book about that.
Pretty soon I was thinking this was an exceptionally apt time in which to set a novel. There were so many wild and improbable things going on then that made for good material. The siege of Vienna where the Turks penetrated into Europe is a thing that's almost inconceivable to us today. That was the deepest into Europe that they got. That's a pretty dramatic little happening. Things like the Barbary pirates and 800 other different flavors of pirates, Spanish treasure galleons, the wars of Louis XIV, the scientific revolution, the plague, the Great Fire of London. All that falls into the period of time when Newton and Leibniz were alive.
The rivalries between the various scientists you write about are so bitter, it's surprising even to someone who already knows that science isn't this Olympian, rational activity totally removed from human pettiness.
Science was new and they didn't know how to do it yet. Science was and is a somewhat contentious thing. Someone's got a theory and they promulgate that theory and then something else comes along and alters, improves on or even flatly contradicts it. Now that we've got 350 years of perspective on this, scientists understand that this is how it's done and there's a mechanism in place for how to do it. It's refereed journals and it's become institutionalized. They didn't have that perspective on it. They couldn't stand back and say, Well, my theory may get contradicted here and there, but this guy who's contradicting it will get contradicted in turn. They didn't have that expectation. They didn't have journals. The first two journals were the Journale de Savants, which was about 1665, and the Proceedings of the Royal Society, which was right about the same time. Leibniz had to found his own journal in order to publish his own work. They were kind of banging around in the dark trying to figure out how to do this.
Hooke, for example, when he figured out how arches work, published it as an anagram. He condensed the idea into this pithy statement: "The ideal form of an arch is the form of a chain hanging, flipped upside down." Then he scrambled the letters to make an anagram and published it. That way, he wasn't giving away the secret, but if somebody came along a few years later and claimed that they'd invented it, he could just unscramble what he'd published. He was establishing precedence.
Hooke squabbled with [Christiaan] Huygens over a bunch of clock-related inventions. This kind of thing was just rife. It came to a head in a grotesque way in the priority dispute over [who invented] the calculus. That was so embarrassing to the whole institution of science and people were so nauseated by it that it taught everyone a lesson. After that, no one would dream of doing what Newton did, which was to invent something really important and then sit on it for 30 years.
I'm still baffled as to why he'd do that.
It was a combination of things. Again, the institutions of science didn't exist. Even if he'd wanted to publish it there were no journals at the time. The prevailing ethos that he would have been brought up in was alchemy, which was called the "esoteric brotherhood." They were completely of a mind that you didn't publish your results, at least not in a way that was intelligible to anyone. So if you read the alchemical recipes of Paracelsus or Robert Boyle or any of those people who practiced this, they're all couched in metaphor. You have to know what stands for what to understand the recipe. They even thought that some of the Greek myths were disguised alchemy recipes, like the myth of Cadmus, who sowed the teeth that grew into soldiers, which they thought was a set of instructions to make some kind of compound. It wouldn't have occurred to Newton anyway to make any new material public. He didn't care at all for fame or getting attention.
But you'd think they'd care about the advancement of their field.
They didn't have the sense of progress, I think, though that's debatable. I talked to one historian of math and science who thinks they very much did. Another thing about the calculus is that it was very controversial because it involves adding up infinitesimal quantities to make something, which is an iffy proposition. Newton was very thin-skinned and would become very withdrawn and bitter when people made even routine criticisms of his work. He didn't want to put it out and then have to spend all his time defending it. Later in the 19th century the mathematical profession finally said, Look, as currently written, this is nonsense, so we've got to tear it down and go back to the beginning. They had to go back and build some serious mathematical underpinnings beneath the calculus. They could see that it worked, but the way in which it had been proved was no longer acceptable. Newton may have suspected that, intuited that, and so was afraid to bring it out.
It's odd that so few historical novelists set their books in the late 17th century, when you think about it. The changes in the air were so huge.
That was one of my reactions, too, when I started getting into this. You see a lot about the late 18th century, the time of the Revolution, you see a lot about the Civil War and the Victorian era. There have been some books about this era published recently -- "An Instance of the Fingerpost," "A Conspiracy of Paper," about the fall of the South Sea company in 1721. But it's strangely underrepresented.
Maybe that's because most novelists tend to be interested in literary history. The age of Johnson is exciting, and the age of Dickens, but not so much this time, in terms of great writers.
Well, in this period you've got Milton. He's coming out with "Paradise Lost" at the same time as the plague, the fire, the founding of the Royal Society. You've got [John] Bunyan, "Pilgrim's Progress," although that's a hard book for people to take these days. That's not anyone's favorite book.
Also, for a modern readership, the religious disputes of that time are pretty complicated and hard to follow. And people took them so seriously, which is difficult to relate to if you're secular-minded.
I think you're on to something in saying that one off-putting thing to people about this period is the religious aspect of it, and also the politics, which are also pretty closely entwined. Milton and Bunyan are intensely religious people and every word they write comes straight from their religion. This was pre-Enlightenment. There were a few people running around with the secular ideas that we accept as being the norm today, but most of these people were religious and really meant it. Newton was that way; Leibniz was that way. They argued about religion, but they did so from the standpoint of people who really took it seriously. I found that an interesting thing to tackle as a writer because these people were so different from the people who are likely to read this book.
You're remarkably sympathetic to the Puritans, too, which is unusual these days.
I have a perverse weakness for past generations that are universally reviled today. The Victorians have a real bad name, and the word "Puritan" is never used except in a highly pejorative way, despite the fact that there are very strong Victorian and Puritan threads in our society today, and despite the fact that the Victorians and Puritans built the countries that we live in. The other one, by the way, is the '50s. Someday I'll have to write a '50s novel.
The reason why people are so vituperative about those generations is not because they know anything about the history, but because they're really talking about splits within our culture today that they're worried about. In the same spirit that I wrote a Victorian novel earlier in my career, I figured it might be a kick to see what to do with some Puritans. Not hip, jaded, cool Puritans, but honest-to-god, fire-breathing Puritans. Drake [Waterhouse, Daniel's father] is an arch-Puritan, but by no means exaggerated. There were a million guys like this running around England in those days. He became the patriarch of this family of people who have to respond to his larger-than-life status and extreme commitment to religion.
What do you admire about the Puritans?
They were tremendously effective people. They completely took over the country and they created an army pretty much from scratch that kicked everyone's ass. This is not always a good thing. They were guilty of some very bad behavior in Ireland, for example. But any way you slice it they were very effective. Cromwell was a tremendous military leader. A lot of that effectiveness was rooted in the fact that they had money, in part because persecuted religious minorities, if they're not persecuted out of existence, often manage to achieve disproportionate wealth. It happened with Jews, Armenians, Huguenots. Earlier in this project, I could have rattled off five more. They have to form private trading networks and lend each other money. They're unusually education conscious. Puritans -- and when we say Puritans, we're talking about a whole grab bag of religious groups -- tended to prize literacy and education. I'm sure they had a higher literacy rate than the general English population. Literacy and education make people more effective.
Another answer is that they very early on adopted a set of views on social topics that everyone now takes for granted as being basic tenets of Western civilization. They were heavily for free enterprise. They didn't want the state interfering in private property. Now our whole system is built on that. We tend to forget that someone had to come up with that idea and fight for it. And those people did. The separation of church and state -- in the absence of that separation, Puritans and other religious minorities couldn't exist. You had to belong to your parish church. Things like registering births, deaths and marriages, which are state functions to us now, were handled solely by the parish churches. If you didn't belong, you didn't exist legally. You had no choice, you had to tithe. It's often said that Cromwell admitted the Jews to England. He disestablished the church and made it possible for churches other than the established one to legally exist. That's what enabled Jews to come back and start living there. Opposition to slavery got its start among different Puritan sects. To be fair, there were Catholic theologians who objected to it, too, but in the English-speaking world it started out as a fringe belief among Quakers and some other groups and spread from there to become a tenet of Methodism and Episcopalianism and basically all churches.
Another thing that some people might find surprising is how religious the scientists are -- though they called themselves natural philosophers back then. We tend to think of science and religion as being fundamentally opposed.
A lot of secular, modern people claim to be disillusioned whenever they learn that any smart person is religious. That's applicable to Newton as it is to any other religious smart person.
And then there was alchemy, which was a major preoccupation for Newton.
Alchemy is a whole different bag because it seems wacky, nuts to us. That's kind of how it's presented in the early part of the "Baroque Cycle." In everything that you've read so far, you're seeing alchemy through Daniel's eyes, and he hates it. He can't believe that Newton is buying into it at all and feels that fooling around with it has caused Newton to associate with the wrong crowd. At the beginning Newton is every bit as much of the correct young Puritan as Daniel is.
These men were discovering properties like gravity and the movement of the planets, but they also believed there was a whole spiritual realm as well.
They certainly believed in sin, temptation, the devil and witches as being real things. They were trying to integrate the new scientific way of thinking into that without destroying the old beliefs that are important to them. At the time, I think alchemy didn't have the occult connotation that it might have now. It was an alternate way of thinking about matter, and it was comparatively modern. A lot of smart people believed in it, and a lot of them were perfectly devout Christians, Jews or Muslims. Since then it's gotten associated with occult practices and one of the chores I've got in this book is to try to keep those two things apart.
Daniel thinks that it's fraudulent. It's old, it's wrong, it's being swept away by the new science, which he sees in Robert Hooke, for example. If you read the text of "Micrographia" [Hooke's famous book of illustrations of objects observed through various lenses], Hooke goes through and demolishes a bunch of alchemical ideas and talks about light and heat and oxygen -- he doesn't use the word "oxygen," but that's what he's talking about -- in ways that are modern. Daniel thinks, why doesn't Newton get with the program and abandon this old system? It's clear that a lot of the people practicing it are frauds and second-raters, when there are people like Hooke inventing a whole new chemistry that actually makes sense. Later on, the vision of this is going to become a little more nuanced.
How did Newton and Leibniz reconcile their scientific studies with their religion?
Newton and Leibniz and other people at the same time are struggling to come up with a system of understanding the world that lets them have their cake and eat it too. There are some holes in the system that Newton presents in "Principia Mathematica" that he's aware of and wants to plug, and you can make a case that the reason he spent so much time on alchemy is that he saw it as a way to finish this grand project. It wasn't like this nutty, eccentric, oddball thing. It was a carefully thought-out part of his grand strategy for his life's work. He was going to publish a book on alchemy called "Praxis" that was going to be as great as or greater than "Principia Mathematica" and supply the missing bits.
At the same time Leibniz is toiling away on a totally different system that's meant to achieve the same goal. It's really the clash between those two systems that's the story, not who invented the calculus first. What Newton and Leibniz were arguing about was broad metaphysical topics of absolute space and time: Do we have free will, and if so, what does that mean? What's a miracle?
Why do you think people find the religious leanings of great scientists so disappointing? Why should they be mutually exclusive?
It's reductionism. You have to be able to reduce everything to interactions among particles. You can't have anything other than that.
There are also the attacks on science made by some religious groups.
The fundamentalist churches nowadays do a much better job of promulgating their views and are much more vocal and outspoken, and if you're a secular person who doesn't have much interaction with organized religion, then the only time you ever see a Christian, it's someone saying that evolution is a lie and the world is only 6,000 years old. It's very easy to miss the fact that the Catholic Church and all the mainline Protestant denominations long ago accepted evolution and have no problem with it at all. I frequently run into militantly secular types who think that all Christians, for example, deny the theory of evolution. That accounts for a certain amount of the militancy of secular types in public discourse. They just can't believe people believe this stuff. It seems patently idiotic to them.
Do you think that reductionist view of science is insufficient?
Steve Horst is working on a book right now called "Mind in the World of Nature," where he talks about our standard method of doing science that Galileo got started -- which is, you break a system down into its parts, you understand the parts, and then you build back up from that to figure out how to explain observable parts. That's a description of how all science has been done for a long time. He's making the argument that a lot of science doesn't necessarily fit that mold: biological science, psychology. There are plenty of cases you can point to, even in mathematics, where being able to break things down into its smallest components doesn't really get you anywhere. It doesn't give you an explanation that's really worth anything. If you look at cellular automata, for example: Sure, each automaton can be explained as a unit, but that's not what's interesting. What's interesting is the really complicated emergent behaviors that you can get out of a whole bunch of these things acting at once. There's really no grid to cross that gap.
Yet we're often led to believe that these things are better understood than they are. Biologists complain that it doesn't make much sense to talk about having "decoded" the genome when how the coding in genes is used to make proteins is still something of a mystery.
My friend Alvy Ray Smith would say that [the making of proteins from genes] is computation. I would avoid the term "mystery." The materialist types just go nuts -- that's their word still. To call somebody a mysterian is their way of flicking somebody off the board. At some level there may be no mystery. You may be able to understand everything if you take the time and trouble to figure out how it all works. But it doesn't give you anything useful, and in the meantime there's lots of perfectly good science you can do by observing the top-level behaviors. People who do cell biology are doing perfectly good science -- you can't claim that they're not doing science.
How much is the "Baroque Cycle" linked to "Cryptonomicon"?
People can decide for themselves how much of a piece they are. I stuck certain little details in "Cryptonomicon" that will make no sense whatsoever unless you've read "Baroque Cycle," but they're so small that you could read through them and not really notice them.
Do you ever worry that the sheer bulk of information you're putting across in the "Baroque Cycle" might overwhelm your readers?
You're seeing it in the context of a story that's hopefully exciting. That makes it more fun to read. I believe that to encounter that kind of material in a story draws people in and gives them a real sense of immediacy, that it was really happening. You want to create a complete picture -- the smells, the look of it, how it worked economically, where the money went. You want to get all that in there.
The birth of modern banking stuff seems like the most daunting thing to turn into entertainment. What interested you about this?
The fact that it was invented. At some point it doesn't exist and then suddenly it's there. They had a market that was basically one stock, which was Dutch East India stock and various derivatives of that. But it still had all the features of the modern stock market. A lot of that stuff got transplanted to London around the time of the Glorious Revolution. The Dutch came over and established links between Amsterdam and London. That's where it really flourished. One thing that London added to the mix that really made it go was a modern banking system. We see them coming up with the idea of it in "Quicksilver," and we see it coming together in "The Confusion," and then we see it operating with various complications in the last volume, "The System of the World." A lot of the people who had a hand in it were the same Royal Society types who were cutting up dogs and pursuing all these other science endeavors.
Speaking of the dogs, some of those descriptions are pretty hard to take.
This is what these guys did. They did it a lot. They went through a lot of dogs in that way.
With something like that, there's only so many different ways for a writer to address it. You can erase it, pretend it didn't happen, and avoid talking about it just because it's unpleasant and you don't want these characters to seem like evil people. But that's not an honest way to go about it. You can turn it into a piece of propaganda to show they were irredeemably vile people, but they weren't. If you're an animal rights advocate, you'll disagree with that and say they were. But to write a book that feels like propaganda for that point of view ... no one would read it. It wouldn't make a good story. So the one thing you're left with is to address the ambiguity of these people and the ambiguity of what they did.
Again, some people won't see any ambiguity. But if you look for it in these Royal Society accounts, it's clear that at a certain point some of these guys started to feel pretty disgusted by what they were doing and they find excuses to avoid doing it anymore. I just decided to present it pretty much as it's described in the historical accounts and leave it to the reader to think about what it means. They had peculiar ideas about pain and what kind of organisms felt pain and which didn't. Of course, they were really just rationalizations. It was believed that black people didn't feel as much pain, also.
The other half of the equation was that they were all feeling pain all the time. Even the most fortunate ones had lice and you name it. They had it. The incidence of bladder stones, something that nobody gets anymore, was incredibly high.
I'd never heard of those.
People get kidney stones still, but they don't seem to get bladder stones anymore. I asked a couple of people why, and you get a vague answer like "changes in diet" or what have you. I think they rarely drank water. They were just drinking alcoholic beverages all the time. Nobody in the world drank water, except maybe Indians and people who lived in really pristine places. That's kind of my pet theory: Every culture can be kind of defined by what they drink in order to avoid dying of diarrhea. In China it's tea. In Africa it's milk or animal blood. In Europe it was wine and beer.
Do you see yourself as part of any particular literary tradition?
I absolutely look to -- consciously, knowingly look back on -- those 19th-century serialized, potboiler novelists as people who are on to something. They got something right. There was something about living in that environment that made these guys incredibly productive. Dickens was the same deal. I do not have the sheer guts that it would take to serialize something. Before you've written the last chapter, the first chapter has already been published, so you can't go back and change anything to make it all work out. I just do not have the sheer chutzpah to start publishing stuff before it's all done. Mine is a pretty risk-averse strategy.
What do you think makes those writers different from "serious" writers today?
I don't think they spent a lot of time agonizing about their art. I think that they found gainful employment producing stuff that was meant to be entertaining, that readers of the Strand magazine would enjoy reading. A lot of it was forgettable, but guess what, a lot of what those kinds of people wrote is now thought of as literature. I've published books that probably aren't literature, but to me it just feels easier and more natural to sit down and produce the material and let the chips fall where they may.
Let's talk about writing. Do you have some plan for what you're trying to do with your books? They're such an unusual combination of what we call right-brain and left-brain material.
For me it begins and ends with story. I'm not a great self-analyzer. I don't think a lot about process. Usually it starts with "Hey, wouldn't it be a great yarn if...?" Because if you don't have that, you've got nothing. What I'm doing here is writing novels, and novels -- never mind what anyone else might tell you -- novels are pop entertainment, and they have to tell a story and they have to engage the emotions. There are a few basic tricks they use to do that. One is to tell a good yarn and the other is to make you feel empathy for the characters involved in the doings of that yarn, but you've got to have that yarn. That's what I seize on first. That's what gives me confidence that I've got a pony I can ride. Characters tend to come out of that, and ideas -- I don't know where they come from. The yarn that got me going on "Quicksilver" was Newton pursuing and prosecuting an archvillain in London at the same time as the dispute with Leibniz is at its peak.
Do you see yourself as moving away from the speculative fiction you wrote early on? "Cryptonomicon" was set entirely in the present and past. The "Baroque Cycle" is an entirely historical novel.
But "Cryptonomicon" was nominated for a Hugo Award. I was very happy about that. This gets into a whole conversation about the sociology of writers and the literary world. There's a long-standing tendency of so-called literary writers and critics to say mean things about science fiction. A lot of science fiction writers don't care, but the ones who do care feel wounded by that and get defensive. That leads to a common thing that happens when a science fiction writer has achieved some success and gets a readership outside the pure science fiction world. A lot of science fiction people become nervous that this writer perceives himself as trapped in some kind of notional science fiction ghetto and is trying to break out of it.
Some people in the science fiction world are ever alert to anyone who's showing signs of that. I don't begrudge them that. I understand where they're coming from. So I always make it clear that I consider myself a science fiction writer. Even the "Baroque Cycle" fits under the broader vision of what science fiction is about.
And what's that?
Fiction that's not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that's set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn't find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, "That's interesting. I never thought of that before." If it's got that, then science fiction people will embrace it and bring it into the big-tent view of science fiction. That's really the role that science fiction has come to play in literature right now. In arty lit, it's become uncool to try to come to grips with ideas per se.
I don't know if that's really true. Don DeLillo, for example, writes about ideas, and he's widely revered by literary writers.
He's less idea oriented now than in the past. If you look at "The Names" or "Great Jones Street," at the core of both of those novels is a conceit that is very science fiction, in a way. I didn't see that as much in "Underworld." You could look on him as a guy who used to write some pretty good science fiction. You could probably find readers and critics who'd say he used to write this iffy stuff with all these geeky ideas, but now he's matured. This is one of these "perception is reality" deals. If you look at science fiction, it's a self-defining community and they know what they like. They've got their own frame of reference for looking at books. If you read the fine print in the reviews in the back of Locus magazine, there's a real intellectual movement represented by the discourse going on in those reviews. It's consciously apart from the mainstream literary world.
One side effect of books getting so little coverage is that different areas of literary activity or excitement often don't seem to know that each other exists. And the literary establishment often isn't aware of what most people are reading. What's most visible in the press isn't necessarily what's reaching the majority of the readers.
There's an interesting phenomenon where... I first noticed this when I was in a bar with a fantasy novelist having a few drinks. We got to the point in the evening when we had the "How big is yours?" conversation. We compared sales figures for "Snowcrash" with this other fellow's latest and I think he'd sold more than I had and he was dumbfounded and so was I. It turns out that there's a whole lot of writers like that, who sell impressive numbers of books. Compared to some of those people I don't sell that many copies. I do fine, but the fact is for some reason I get attention that's out of proportion to actual sales. What was new to me is that there were people like that, mastodons, who I'd never even heard of.
People see you as having become a crossover writer. Are you deliberately trying to bridge that gap with your more recent work, to reach readers who ordinarily wouldn't consider science fiction?
But I got a big review in the New York Times for "Zodiac"! I think I got one for "The Big U," actually, but I'd have to go back and check. I've heard from people, "Oh, I don't like science fiction but someone talked me into reading this book." There was some of that happening, certainly. But this is not what I ever think about. I try to follow my nose and write what I want to write and do it in a way that's presentable and engaging for people. Everything beyond that is a marketing decision. I don't think of myself that way and people don't think of themselves that way.
Do you worry about losing your old audience?
The "Baroque Cycle" is about science, right? And it's got ideas in it. So to me it'll appeal to people who read science fiction. There's always been a lot of historical stuff in science fiction. Kim Stanley Robinson just published "The Years of Rice and Salt" -- which is a kind of historical novel. It's been going on for a long time. Even when I was a kid, reading science fiction stories and books, every so often I'd run across one that happened to be set in the historical past. That was considered to be within the normal bounds of what these people write about.
There was a review of "Cryptonomicon" with a line in it that struck me as interesting. The guy said, "This is a book for geeks and the history buffs that they turn into." I'm turning into one. I'm in this history book club, which is not all geeks but it's definitely got some serious geeks in it. It's been going for four or five years maybe. We're all consistently dumbfounded by how interesting history is when you read it yourself compared to how dull it was when they made you study it in school. We can't figure out why there's that gap. I think they try to cover too broad a sweep at once so you never get down to the individual people and their stories. It's all generalities.
You come from a scientific family, don't you?
Both my grandfathers had Ph.D.'s in the sciences. My dad's dad was a physicist and my mom's dad was a biochemist. My dad is an electrical engineering professor. I have uncles who are scientists. More than anything, growing up in a university town got me interested in it. First we lived in Champaign-Urbana and then Ames, Iowa. Ames is the home of a university with a strong orientation toward science, technology, engineering. The community where I grew up, half the parents of the kids I hung out with were Ph.D. science types.
Were you interested in science as a kid?
I was always one of these little science geek guys who would do little experiments and build things. If you call blowing things up experiments, there were a lot of chemistry experiments. We played with model rockets. It was a freedom to mess around with things. Ames was the site of the Manhattan Project facility where they would take uranium ore that they'd trek down from Canada and extract uranium metal from it and then send the uranium on to Oak Ridge to be enriched. There were all kinds of facilities there for dealing with rare earths and radioactive elements. They also had a big agricultural engineering school. We did a thing in my Cub Scout troop where one of the dads got a bunch of corn seeds that were all from the same plant, divided them up into little bags, carried them across campus to another dad of one of the other scouts who worked with radioactive stuff, and he carried it down to the hot room in the basement and exposed these seeds to radiation, some hot isotope that they had down there. These were handed out to use at the next meeting and we were each supposed to take these home and plant them and at the end of the month a prize was given out to the healthiest plant and another to the weirdest mutation. We got some really weird-looking plants out of that. I've never had a green thumb, so mine died, but I don't think it had anything to do with radiation.
I'm surprised you wound up as a novelist.
I started out as a physics major. I should have stuck with it. At some point I got interested in geography. There were fun people in that department to hang around with, and they had easier access to computers there, particularly to computer graphics terminals. I came within a couple credits of getting a double major, physics and geography. I could have gotten a physics degree, but I was ready to leave school, so I left.
How did you wind up writing your first novel?
I think my plan was to drive to the West Coast. I had this old pickup truck that I was going to do it in and I got as far as Iowa before I got it into my head that I should overhaul the engine of this pickup truck. It was burning oil. I was having to stop every 150 miles and put in a quart of oil. Now that's not so bad. It would have made a lot more sense to buy a couple of cases of oil, but I have always had this fatal weakness for getting involved in the physical nitty-gritty of stuff. It seemed like a cool idea that I'd take apart this engine and fix it up with my own two hands. I launched into that and I was doing it in an unheated garage in Iowa in January. I was 21. It was bitterly cold and the engine was all dirty. If you know what you're doing, you steam-clean the engine first, and I didn't do that. I did a bunch of things wrong. It turned into a lengthy, grinding, unpleasant process. But I got it done, got the engine to work right, but I'd lost my momentum to go out West and do something there. My sole assets at that point were the value of the gasoline in the tank of this vehicle, in my parents' garage.
So I decided to write my second novel. I'd written one in Boston, kind of a starter novel. Kind of a fantasy novel, I guess you could say. "The Big U" is No. 3. The second novel was an epic fantasy.
Were you inspired by Tolkien?
I was very consciously trying to do something that was not like Tolkien. This is a novel with a lot of geography in it. It was set on a planet that had a peculiar geography. It was geography-driven, geographical fiction.
Was that the point that you started to get serious about writing?
I felt like I was starting to get a little bit of traction as a writer. I wasn't publishing anything, but I was starting to get the hang of it, and I knew what to do better next time. I got a day job in an office and started working on this third book, which became "The Big U." The bottom line is that eventually it sold. It needed a lot of work because of the way I'd written it. There's a theory or a paradigm of how to write that I'd imbibed without knowing that I'd imbibed it. Somewhere out there is the platonic ideal of the thing you're trying to write and your rough draft is just a shadow of it. You toil through one draft after another trying to make it better. I sort of did that with "The Big U" and then I very consciously tried to do it with the thing I wrote after that, which never got published.
What happened to that book?
I had been reading all these accounts by other writers about how they produced their magnum opus and they all followed something I'll call the distillation narrative. Which was: "I sat down and wrote a manuscript that was a foot thick and it had some good stuff in it, but it was too long. So I rolled up my sleeves and went to work and edited. Toiled. I cut and scraped. I hacked. I shortened and rearranged and got it down to six inches, but it still wasn't good enough. So I went back and yada yada yada. And eventually I wound up with this trim little manuscript that had all the good parts in it."
That was a reassuring theory of how to write because it didn't require you to sit down every day and turn out good material. Instead it required you to sit down for eight hours a day and produce a huge volume of material and hope that there was something good in it. Then you'd go back later and cut out all the crap. Whatever works, but it failed for me, and it failed kind of expensively in the sense that I spent two or three years on that and produced a miserable, incoherent pile and sort of ruined a decent enough idea. I ended up feeling very anxious when I got to the end of the process and came to terms with the fact that this was not a publishable book. Then I panicked and wrote another book very quickly that got almost immediately accepted for publication and that was "Zodiac."
How did you change your writing process after that?
I did figure out that I tended to write good stuff first thing in the morning. So I had all this free time in the rest of the day that I had to occupy with something other than writing. Because if I sat and wrote, I'd just bury the good stuff I'd written in crap and have to excavate it later. I did some construction work with a friend of mine. Basically the work habit I developed out of all that was of setting things up so I could write in the morning and then stop and exercise my penchant for getting into the nitty-gritty details of physical things. Not because that was productive in any way but because it kept me from screwing up whatever I happened to be writing. I tried to pattern things that way ever since. That's worked fairly well.
One of things you like to do on the side is dabble in programming. Do you see similarities between writing code and writing fiction?
I think there are common threads between writing and programming. That's a really easy statement for people to misunderstand and twist around so I'm a little leery of making it. All I'm saying is that the thing you're making -- the novel or the computer program -- has got a very complicated and finely wrought hierarchical structure to it. The structure has to work right or the whole thing fails. But the only way you can work on it is by hitting one character at a time. You're building this thing one character at a time while having to maintain the whole structure in your head. That description applies equally well to programming and novel writing even though they're very different activities.
I agree that comparing the two could raise hackles in some quarters. People like to believe that one activity is entirely aesthetic and emotional and the other is entirely rational.
That's a misconception. I justify say that by referring to the work of Antonio Damasio, who's a friend of mine. He's written a few books about the brain, and the one that's most relevant to this discussion is "Descartes' Error." The error he's complaining about is the idea that reason and emotion are different things. He tells a story about a patient who suffered a very specific localized kind of brain damage that was blocking a certain kind of interaction between how he thought and how he felt. In certain situations, this guy was better than other people at certain things. When driving on ice he didn't panic and he knew all the rules, how to turn the steering wheel and keep his car under control, and he was able to drive when other people were skidding off the road. But if you asked him to schedule an appointment and gave him two dates to choose between, this guy could sit there for an hour, dithering over this simple choice. Every possible contingency or scenario that could play out would flash up in his head, and he didn't know how to choose between them.
Damasio is arguing that one of the innate faculties of our brain is that we can envision a wide range of possible scenarios and then sort through them very quickly not by logic but through a kind of process of the emotions. Emotions associated with a particular scenario cause us to prune off whole sets of options. He claims that chess masters work that way. Part of the time it's this very logical, rational thing, but part of the time it's "This gives me the willies. I'm not going there." Damasio quotes in this book scientists like Einstein who quite explicitly say that their process of shifting through ideas and deciding where to go with their research has a very strong emotional component to it. I don't buy the idea of a split between a rational and an emotional mind. I suspect that idea is a lot more common among nonscientists. I think there's a whole complex of factors behind scientists being pegged as emotionally remote or out of touch with their feelings.
I was amazed to discover that you wrote these three 1,000-page books by hand, but some writers do say that writing by hand puts them in better touch with that kind of intuition.
I do it all on paper. I started that with the "Baroque Cycle." "Cryptonomicon" is the last book I wrote typing it into a computer. I use a fountain pen. The entire thing is in longhand.
Is that your method from now on?
I think so. It's hard to say, because I tend to invent a whole different system for writing each book. This may turn out to be something just for these books.
Considering the period you're writing about, maybe you should have tried writing it with a quill.
I thought about it. But that seemed a little over the top. What I figured out a long time ago is that, while I don't get blocked that much, when I got really blocked and couldn't get going on something, what always worked was to get away from the computer and sit down somewhere with a piece of paper and a pen and just start writing. So I thought, if this works so well to get the juices flowing, is there any reason why I shouldn't try to write more that way? This was around the same time I was discarding the whole notion that one had to produce tons of material every day. The fact that it's slower is not a problem because I wasn't worried anymore about producing a lot fast. I like the fact that it never crashes, you can't lose your work. Occasionally after I've typed it and I'm editing it onscreen, I may add a paragraph at the keyboard but that's probably not more than a few pages out of the entire "Cycle." Basically, every word was written with a fountain pen.
It's incredible how much you've produced in the past few years while only writing in the morning. What do you do with the rest of the day?
Ever since about '85 or '86 I've indulged my penchant for getting into physical stuff. A lot of the time I'd do projects, whatever interested me. I'd build a model rocket or work on an electronic circuit or write a little computer program or work on the house or the car. There was a long series of things like that I would do.
Then I started skewing towards things that were really impractical, because if I got into practical things, I'd get into trouble. I'd work on a computer program and then I'd think, "Hey, there's a business opportunity here." And then I'd get distracted. Or I'd start a house remodeling project, wiring some outlets or something like that, and something would happen and I'd run afoul of the inspector and get into some kind of situation-comedy tangle that would make it hard for me to work in the morning. I ended up doing a lot of rocket building, large model rockets. That turned into me being on the advisory board of this space company in Seattle, Blue Origin.
Is it a research outfit, or do they actually make things?
It's intended to be very much a making-things kind of operation, but right now it's in a hiring and getting-ready stage.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't building rockets cost a fortune?
It does cost a fortune, but that's not my department. I'm a member of the advisory board with machine shop privileges. I go in there and try to make myself useful in an advisory capacity inasmuch as a science fiction writer can. Time will tell. Here I have to get really vague because it's not my company and I don't have an ownership stake in it, and so we're no longer talking about my intellectual property, as it were. I tend to rapidly become bored with the more abstract parts of it. I want to go off and lift heavy objects and operate a plate grinder.
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Friday, April 23, 2004
how dogs perceive the universe
"There's a different between using smell as the primary sense and vision. Vision is all about surfaces, about being outside. And it's at a distance too. We take input, then cognition occurs, and then act. (That's not to say that sensing and locamotion are separate, they're not.) There's a self there.
us - um yeah, they suck
"But smell. Vision first. If you see a lion, you can do something about it before you have to deal with it. You can hide. Or run away, if it hasn't seen you. But there's thinking time. Vision decouples sensing from action. And it's very binary: it's only an edge case where you see a hint of something. Sense exceeds reach; vision affords anticipation, apprehension.
"But smell! Smell is all about hints. You don't smell a lion, you smell 70% of the likelihood of a lion -- is it nearby in space, or in time? How close is it? How much does it smell? There's no chance to think about it, you can't hold the sense-of-lion at a distance: even 10% of lion is 10% chance of getting eaten. Wherever you are in the field, there's the chance that something will happen.
"There is no cognition step between sense and act with smell.
"Smell is all about moving through the insides, through a field of intensities, of potential. There's no hiding.
"For a dog, the sensory input of smell leads to actions (or potential of action) so thoroughly that it comprises a large portion of the mind of the dog. The smellspace is not just input, it's the beginning of output too. So when the dog walks along, it's like they're thinking. It's not undirected thought by any means. A dog can decide where to walk, so moving equals thinking.
"Navigation is cognition. But there's no concept of moving. Just being (continuing).
"For us, this is almost like reading (especially reading someone like Markson). You can't read and articulate thoughts at the same time. The input is how your minds moves; the book comprises part of your thought processes. And because you decide what to read, it's like a dog exploring the landscape."
"Ok, so things are good here still. It got hot this week. It's taking a bit of the energy out of my students.
"I had them talk about cloning today. Gave them scenarios, like 'someone found einstien's dna, they want to clone him, do you think it's a good idea'? A bunch of them asked me 'will the clones have the same mind as einstein?' We got into a sort of interesting conversation about nature vs nurture and I told them urban legends about how twins seperated at birth often have amazing similarities. They surprised me by knowing about cells and DNA. And x and y chromosomes.
"Then I gave them a little SF speech, told them some stories. In one, some spacemen go out into space, and when they get back to earth 200 years later they find that all the men are dead, and that earth is populated by a few million women. Later they find out that there are only like 1000 unique women on earth, and they just keep cloning more. So kids growing up are raised by older clones of themselves, and there's a book written by each 'variety' detailing their different experiences in life and which of the other 1000 varieties they get along with well.
"The kids thought that was 'terrible' and 'funny'."
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Thursday, April 22, 2004
"I have never experienced a more erotic cinematic moment than when Vasquez looks into Gorman's eyes and says: 'You always were an asshole' before they both gasp and clench the detonator on the thermal grenade. I weep a little and pop a huge boner every time I watch it."
"I looked at him. There was white fluid on his hair and cheeks, on his chest and collar. 'You never told her you had a porn collection?'"
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Tuesday, April 20, 2004
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Monday, April 19, 2004
atoms of space and time by lee smolin
ideology is theft by howard bloom, GLOR iss. #11 (via technoccult)
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Saturday, April 17, 2004
cross purposes a review by erik davis
In The Puppet and the Dwarf, Zizek asks if maybe we are only "really alive" when we engage ourselves with excessive intensity. If so, he suggests, then a Palestinian suicide bomber is more alive than a New York yuppie jogging to keep fit. "What makes like 'worth living' is the very excess of life: the awareness that there is something for which we are ready to risk our life (we may call this excess "freedom, "honor," "dignity," "autonomy," etc.)." Following 9/11, we have come to instantly recoil from such intensities, but Zizek's provocative claims remind us of the well-managed secular dystopia that lies on the far end of that recoil. In contrast, Zizek calls for a kind of Lacanian liberation theology wherein subjectivity bursts through objective history into messianic time. "Authentic revolution," he says, "always occurs in an absolute Present, in the unconditional urgency of a Now." I'm not really sure what this would mean, or even look like, but it does sound rather Zen.
an agent for good a review by david eggers (via largehearted boy)
He had gone to several universities... and had found only curves and credits. He had become drunk on the idea of God and found only theology. He had risen several times on the subtle and powerful wings of lust, expectant of magnificence, achieving only discharge. A few times he had extended friendship with palpitating hope, only to find that no one quite knew what he had in mind. His solitude now was the result of his metabolism, that constant breathing in of joy and exhalation of sadness.
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Friday, April 16, 2004
"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." - Philip K. Dick
Yeah, that's a good way of putting it.
That would exclude, oh, how about governments and countries? If we don't believe in boundaries and in the power of certain groups of people to govern us, then there really isn't anything there. There are continents and land and people. But no borders and no power over us. No laws either. They aren't really real. People are real. What they do is real. Their thoughts and feelings and actions are real.
Goodbye to religions too. If you don't believe in them, there's really not much there. A lot of church buildings and some books. Good deeds are real.
Scientific laws and theories go away as well when we stop believing in them. Nature and life doesn't go away. The flowers keep blooming and the planets keep rotating around their stars. And there's a system to that, which keeps working. But it is the theoretical models of how we think that works that drop away.
There's a lot of things our theories say don't exist or can't exist. If we stop believing in those theories, those things will still be there. Extraterrestrials, other dimensions, paranormal perceptions, miraculous events. Except that they won't be miraculous or paranormal unless you have some kind of belief about how unlikely they're supposed to be.
Dreams exist whether you believe in them or not. You'll be zipping around in fantastic realities every day, at least when you sleep.
Failure and success, loyalty and betrayal, mistakes, lies, obligations, promises, "shoulds" - none of it means much if one stops believing. What matters is what is there, and what you actually do. Good constructive actions last longer than desctructive actions. They're more real. Good and bad feelings exist. The reasons for them do not.
Life exists. Consciousness exists. I exist. I'm probably more real the more I get over my beliefs about why and how.
Next time you're at the store, get a Pepsi bottle off the shelf and tilt it exactly 25 degrees. If you see the word "Again," as in "Please try again," that bottle is not a winner in Pepsi's latest contest. So you can put it back, and get another bottle. It's not much to win: a song on iTunes is worth about 99 cents, and you still have to buy the Pepsi. A few years ago, this would have been a secret, passed around by word of mouth, but now it's all over the web, complete with a helpful diagram showing the exact angle of tilt.
I really enjoy seeing a corporate plan destroyed. The Internet's great at this, little packets of subversion flapping around the ether. A better and bigger example than the Pepsi tilting is The Grey Album, the remix of The Black Album by rapper Jay-Z and the Beatles' White Album. EMI, the Beatles' record company, has stopped The Grey Album from being distributed, even though it's hard to see how DJ Danger Mouse is going to hurt Ringo and Sir Paul (not to mention John and George). Because EMI has made the album illegal, it's become precious, even though musically it's interesting-but-not-all-that-great. Now you can find it all over the Internet as MP3s, hidden away in secret places and shared on P2P networks.
What we drink, what we listen to, what we drive. Advertisers write so many scripts for our lives. We're just not always willing to stick to our lines. Pepsi had an idea about this contest, how you and I were going to behave. In fact, they only expected 10 to 20% of the people finding winning caps to claim them on iTunes. EMI has a script for us, too, regarding how we listen to the Beatles. If we veer away, we're in trouble, litigation for everyone. Or there's Volkswagen, who want us to identify with their cast of happy hipsters with trimmed bangs. Or Microsoft, who expect us to be so enthusiastic about office work that we leap into the air. Following these scripts and being a consumer can get a little grim and monotonous.
Of course we're not just consumers—we're people, and we do more than buy. (I hope.) Sometimes we get together and march off the spreadsheet. We drop the script and start improvising, and the campaign managers just have to lump it. Because, sadly for those who manage the brands, human beings care much more about their own fun than about the sacred rights of Mighty PepsiCo. It's the slosh heard round the world, as people tilt their soda bottles 25 degrees, and it's the sound of Jay-Z and George Harrison together at last. These aren't sounds of rebellion-it's just that people won't always march in step. At least not until someone perfects the advertising brain ray.
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Wednesday, April 14, 2004
If you have lived abroad, it is obvious that the United States is very religious for a wealthy country. Here are some explanations why:
One theory involves the different histories of religious marketing over the last two centuries. Because religion has a long history of state sponsorship in Europe, religious bodies there have perhaps grown lazy. State-supported congregations need not aggressively recruit parishioners to "stay in business." In the United States, however, religions must support themselves and therefore are more aggressive "marketers," going to much greater lengths to attract congregants than their European counterparts. In other words, American religious organizations spend a great deal of time and energy advertising, and their advertising nets results (Stark and Finke 2000).
A second theory involves the ethnic, racial, immigrant, and national diversity that typifies American society. Unlike certain European nations that are made up of relatively homogenous populations (Iceland, for instance), the United States is permeated by an enormous array of different cultural groups, whose members may find solidarity and community in religious involvement (Warner and Wittner 1998; Herberg 1955). For example, W.E.B. Du Bois, the first American sociologist of religion, observed the unparalleled importance of the church to black Americans, noting that, beyond promulgating theology, the black churches provided a social space and communal refuge in an often hostile world (Zuckerman 2002). In sum, it is possible that a significant level of ethnic/cultural/racial heterogeneity, as typified by American society, spurs greater religious participation as people seek a sense of belonging or communal support.
A third consideration involves the possible impact of different social welfare systems. Perhaps when the government takes a greater role in providing social services, religion wanes, and when the government fails to provide extensive social services, religion thrives. For instance, religious belief and participation is the absolute lowest level in Scandinavia, whose countries are characterized by generous social support and extensive welfare systems. In contrast, the United States government offers far fewer social services and welfare programs than any European nation.
In 1995 the most prestigious journal in economics, the American Economic Review, published one of the most controversial papers in its long history, War Politics: An Economic, Rational-Voter Framework (JSTOR). Gregory Hess and Athanasios Orphanides modeled voters as caring about two presidential abilities, the ability to make war and the ability to manage the economy. To get reelected an incumbent President must convince voters that his combined abilities make him better than a challenger.
This simple model has some profound implications. If the economy is doing well, the President is up on one score and without evidence can be assumed to be as good as the challenger in war-making ability. Thus, the President gets reelected. But if the economy is doing badly then an incumbent who cannot present evidence that he is of superior war-making ability will lose for certain. Crucially, an incumbent can't demonstrate war-making ability without a war - thus when the economy is doing poorly and the President is up for reelection the model predicts more wars.
Hess and Orphanides define a war as "an international crisis in which the United States is involved in direct military activity that results in violence." Using data from the International Crisis Behavior Project they compare the onset of wars in first terms when there is a recession with the onset of wars in first terms with no recession and second terms. If wars are random these probabilities ought to be the same. Stunningly, however, they find that in the 1953-1988 period wars are about twice as likely in first terms with a recession than in first terms with no recession and second terms (60 percent to 30 percent). The probability of this result occurring by chance is about 5%. Various extensions and modifications produce similar results.
Need I mention that the Hess and Orphanides model has proven to have predictive power?
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Tuesday, April 13, 2004
ray's fine liquors [via]
Hi you guys. Listen, even though it's only been six months or so since you came to town, I feel like we know each other pretty well, so I'm going to speak openly with you and I hope that's OK.
message from al [via]
On April 9, my mom and dad, Nick and Mary Yankovic, passed away in their home in Fallbrook, California. It was the result of a terrible accident – that morning they had started a fire in the fireplace with the flue closed, and were asphyxiated by carbon monoxide poisoning.
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Sunday, April 11, 2004
"In the writer-director's orchestration of images, culled from hundreds of action movies both Eastern and Western, and his insistence that the emotions and moral codes contained in even the cheesiest 'grind house' movie demand our attention, Tarantino has fulfilled the promise of the earlier work: Here is a movie that not only pays homage to a host of action-movie styles but rigorously explores its pulp fiction for visceral truths that link culture and cinema. Here's a movie that both academics bundled in film theories and teenagers on hot dates will find supercool."
"If you get put in solitary, it fucking sucks. I was put in there just because they had me in double-lock maximum security, and it's the most tedious fucking thing. I can't think of anything more boring. There's a Japanimation cartoon I've been trying to watch on Cartoon Network called Witch Hunter Robin, and that's almost as boring. When I got my sentence, I ended up doing road crew for a couple of weeks."
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Saturday, April 10, 2004
ten years later
"On the first anniversary of his death, I went with a friend to a house in Wicker Park, Chicago. An altar had been set-up with Cobain's picture, some candles, a hypodermic, a bindle of dope and a small pile of letters addressed to him. A Nirvana disc was in the stereo. There were 10 or 12 people, several were crying; all were talking about how much he meant to them and how much they missed him. At that moment, I stopped thinking Nirvana was lame. I stopped thinking Nirvana was a creation of MTV. I realized Cobain spoke for a lot of people, changed a lot of lives, touched an untold number. I bought In Utero the next day, listened to it. I realized maybe Cobain spoke for me as well."
not fade away
"The world heard that today is the tenth anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death. The world at large never heard of Wesley Willis. Cobain was blond, beautiful, brooding, the face of a new sound of rock and roll whose band sold millions of copies. Willis was a three-hundred-pound black man, a singer and schizophrenic from Chicago who wrote songs like "Spank Wagon" and "I Wupped Batman's Ass" ("Batman beat the hell outta me and knocked me to the floor / I got back up and knocked him to the floor / He was being such a jackoff"). Record critics and music industry types tended to love him. Wesley Willis was 40 years old when he died from internal hemorrhaging. Kurt Cobain was twenty-seven years old when, addicted to heroin and still struggling with his success. Cobain might have lived if he had had a little more Wesley Willis in him."
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Thursday, April 8, 2004
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Wednesday, April 7, 2004
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Monday, April 5, 2004
Where Narcissists are in love w/ their own reflection, Histrionics are in love with an image they construct, and how other people react to that image.
Individuals with HPD focus on others to the point that they obtain their own identity from those to whom they are attached. Yet the attention they focus on others does not allow them to gain understanding of others or to become effectively empathic. Their intense observation skills are dedicated to determining what behaviors, attitudes, or feelings are most likely to result in winning the admiration and approval of others. Essentially, these individuals watch other people watch them. Their actual focus is on how they are doing and how they are being received by others. As a result, they are not particularly effective in understanding how others are feeling.
Carse cites Proust: "The only true voyage would be not to travel through a hundred different lands with the same pair of eyes, but to see the same land through a hundred different pairs of eyes." (p. 154) But in adding this last chapter, he leaves us with this one land.
Is the one reality is the basis we need in order to understand each other, to interact?
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Sunday, April 4, 2004
The essential feature of Identiopathic Personality Disorder is a pervasive pattern of acute, inflexible mimetic attachment to an exaggerated and overly demonstrative identification of oneself with perceived subversive ideology. This pattern typically begins in early adulthood (though increasing reports of onset as early as age 10 are becoming significant) and persists well into the 30s and beyond, and is present in a variety of contexts.
Individuals with this disorder experience severe subjective distress regarding an overly rigid certainty on issues relating to identity, including long-term goals, lifestyle, friendship patterns, moral values, and group loyalty. They have a pattern of immediate demonstrative and intense relationships based predominantly on the notion of shared vision and struggle (e.g., social, political, personal). These relationships, though believed to be enduring, tend to be unstable over time. Beneath the sense of camaraderie lies a thinly veiled hierarchy based on a competitive mastering of the group identity (e.g., A exuberantly tells B, "I too once thought that until C called me on it..."). They demand consistency from themselves, others, and their environment, and are unable to accept or reconcile conflicting beliefs and desires.
Individuals with this disorder may perceive themselves as possessing superior intellectual powers and a vast capacity for empathy, causing them to have an unreasonable expectation of deference or automatic compliance with their values and beliefs; they often appear haughty and arrogant, and believe they can only be understood by, or should only associate with, other "special people" (e.g., individuals believed to be like-minded, more knowledgeable and unique, or relevant to "the cause"). Because this enduring personality trait, which is exhibited in a wide range of social and personal contexts, deviates markedly from the expectations of dominant culture, individuals with this disorder tend to suffer distress and/or impairment in social and occupational settings.
In this book, most anything adhering to a strict concept of Order and authority is presented as negative, and the 'good guys', agents of Chaos, are as admirable as The Beatles. The dichotomy is made plain as day, and it takes Morrison six more graphic novels to finally blur the lines.
The way the Invisibles are organized, or rather, disorganized, highlights this distinction between Morrison's suggested 'good' and 'evil' more than anything else. On Page 134 Jack asks Boy, "If nobody knows who's working for who, how do I know I haven't joined the other side?" This question is actually an answer in itself. People belonging to the Invisible Dis-Organization work in small groups that plan revolution on their own, and take orders from no one. If Jack knew who he was working for, and the hierarchy wasn't so nebulous and apt to change, then he'd be working for Morrison's villains.
Launching off from this topic, another good point of discussion is brought up in Morrison's conversations between Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. When first introduced, Shelley argues that they should fight to enlighten people and free them from the bonds of self-imposed tyranny, while Byron suggests that saving one's own sanity is chore enough. Later when confronted with the death of his child, Shelley sequesters himself, but rather than despair idealism like his partner in poetry, he writes a world of perfection and happiness, and the act of imagination spurs him to embrace his wife in an enlightened moment. Byron just drinks.
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Friday, April 2, 2004
pastor carl wilkens
… Probably the most incredible experience was [when] I had gone to the colonel, and he had put me in touch with some of the groups of orphans around the city that needed help. The Gisimba orphanage was a really desperate case, because they were in the heart of the nastiest part of the city. The most belligerent killers were there in that part of Nyamirambo, and the U.N. couldn't get through [easily]. … It was just a terrible section of the city. These guys [at the orphanage] were starving. They [had] no water, kids were being killed [and] were dying from dysentery. So I started working with that orphanage.
general romeo dallaire
One day, we brought a load of water to them … and as I pulled in the parking lot, here is a younger brother to the orphanage director. … I said, "Where's your brother?" and he says, "They came last night. They killed some people. They said they're coming back to finish us all off today, and [my brother] has gone to try to find help, to try to find food." As we're talking, this counselor for the area comes ripping in his little stolen Mercedes station wagon. As he got out of his car, I looked around, and here surrounding the orphanage, just materializing -- it's about 50 militia guys [with] camouflage jackets or camouflage pants, but all of them with machine guns. …
I said to my Rwandan colleague, who was driving the truck, I said, "Siphon as slow as you can. We've got to make this last. I don't know what we're going to do, but it seems like [the gendarmeries who could help us] are not coming while we're here."…
It's terrible. You're sick to your stomach. Finally it just seemed [right] to go, and I-- Yes, you're just saving your own skin, but I promised to him, "I'll come back. I can get help." [The younger brother] just still adamantly [doesn't want me to go], but I'd made the decision. I left, partially thinking as I pull out, "They'll stop me at the next barrier, [and] they'll shoot me." But they let me out of there.
I went to the police camp [and] finally found a guy who was in charge there. I had actually met him before the genocide, and he was surprised to see me. He says, "Oh, you're at the orphanage, and I don't have any more men I can send out there." I said, "Maybe I'll try the army." But the special army phone couldn't get anybody. …
I went to the headquarters office and a young secretary I'd become friends with … [told me] the colonel wasn't in; he was out of town that day, but his assistant [was] eating down in the basement. So I said, "Well, I'll go to Mark at the other orphanage two blocks away, and I'll be right back." [When he] got back, he said, "He's down [there], but you won't believe it -- the prime minister's here." I'm like, "So what's that mean?" and he's like, "Ask him."
I'm like, "Ask him?" It's like that's the stupidest thing you could imagine -- to ask this guy who is obviously orchestrating the genocide, a key player, and yet I have no other options. … [He's like], "Just go out in the hallway. He's in the next office. When he comes out, ask him." So I went out [into the hallway] … and [a] door opens. Everybody snaps to attention, and here comes [the prime minister] and his little entourage. They're coming down the hall, and I am, too.
I put my hand out and I said, "Mr. Prime Minister, I'm Carl Wilkins, the director of ADRA." He stops and he looks at me, and then he takes my hand and shakes it and said, "Yes, I've heard about you and your work. How is it?" I said, "Well, honestly, sir, it's not very good right now. The orphans at Gisimba are surrounded, and I think there's going to be a massacre, if there hasn't been already." He turns around, talks to some of his aides or whatever, [and he turns back to me and] he says, "We're aware of the situation, and those orphans are going to be safe. I'll see to it."
So what's that mean? Now are they going to go and kill them all? What's it mean? But there were certain times in this thing where you just [have to say], I've done everything I could. Do I go back there and tell them the prime minister said they're going to be OK? It's getting late in the evening. The mortars are falling heavier now, [and I have] people back at the house.
I chose to go home. I chose to trust. You recognize it's not about you. You're not it. There's bigger things happening again. So I went home and they were safe, and that was just a couple of days later that they were all moved to a safer part of a bad town. It was an incredible reunion as we found all of those orphans moved out.
I didn't have to go there. I was always worried about [being] labeled as trying to rescue Tutsis, and then I wouldn't be able to move around the city. I wouldn't be able to help any groups of orphans. And this was all done without me even being there. …
The genocide is so complicated. People think, "Oh, you're implicated -- and you're not." I was in so many positions that could have been interpreted as compromising or even collaborating with the enemy. … Who's going to believe someone who goes to court and says, "Well, actually I asked [the prime minister] to help me save some Tutsis?" Who's going to believe that? The stuff in the genocide just turns. That's why the thing about this is we've got to recognize in each one of us, there's such a potential for good and there's such a potential for evil. …
…I had to crack the nut of the militias, because it was evident they were dancing to a different drum. And so I asked Bagosora, I said listen, let me meet these guys, let me negotiate with them, because he was doing it, or the chief of staff of the army was doing it and I kept getting it second hand or third hand. I said, "I'll meet with them and we'll talk face to face and then we'll sort this out, hopefully."
So Bagosora established a couple of these meetings, but the first one was in the Diplomat Hotel that had been partially bombed out, that was used as the extremist headquarters in Kigali. … Bagosora brought me and there were these three guys, three Rwandans, one tall, one medium and one smaller who stood up when I entered. Bagosora introduced them and as I was looking at them and shaking their hands I noticed some blood spots still on them. And all of a sudden they disappeared from being human. All of a sudden something happened that turned them into non-human things.
I was not talking with humans, I literally was talking with evil, personified, maybe in those bodies and in those eyes. But they weren't human. And what was coming out of their mouths wasn't human. They were so proud of now being into discussions with the general from the U.N., and that gave them great personal prestige, and they were [elated at] this situation that they found themselves in. But everything that was coming out was not words of a human negotiating or discussing, it was evil blurting out their positions and their arguments. I didn't see humans anymore, I was totally overcome by the evil. These three guys just brought it into reality, brought evil into reality and by my religious background, the only way I could qualify that was being the devil. That son of a bitch had come on earth, in that paradise, and literally taken over. And these three guys were the right hand people of Lucifer himself, Bagosora. And I couldn't shake that.
… My instinctive reaction had me starting to pull my pistol, because I was facing evil. I wasn't facing humans I was facing something that had to be destroyed. … It even became a very difficult ethical problem. Do I actually negotiate with the devil to save people? Or do I wipe it out, shoot the bastards right there? I haven't answered that question yet. What if I'd killed them? Objectively their structure was such that if I'd wiped out these three guys the structure would have sustained itself and then I would have put the whole lot of us in guaranteed danger of being wiped out. But for a long time I felt that I wouldn't have been killing humans, I would have been actually destroying the devil.
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Thursday, April 1, 2004
genocide prevention (economist)
Ten years on, some lessons have been learned. Rwanda's Tutsi-dominated government, born of the rebel army that stopped the genocide, has learned never to trust the UN, or any other foreign body, to protect its people. Since Tutsis are a small minority, and since thousands of armed génocidaires still lurk in the rainforests of Congo, Rwanda's giant neighbour, it is hardly surprising that they feel vulnerable.
quiet war (csmonitor)
Though they would deny it, Rwanda's ruling party and its tough-as-kevlar president, Paul Kagame, have concluded that the only way to guarantee the survival of the Tutsis is to remain in power indefinitely. In many respects, they rule well: Rwanda has seen a remarkable recovery since 1994. But they tolerate no serious domestic opposition, nor much in the way of free speech. Rwanda today is a thinly-disguised autocracy, where dissidents, who are usually accused of genocidal tendencies, live in fear, or exile, or both. The regime is also a menace to its neighbours. It was justified in invading Congo to disperse the génocidaires who were using the place as a base for attacks on Rwanda, but it surely did not have to kill 200,000 people in the process.
The rest of the world has learned different lessons from its failure ten years ago. Then, the West's reluctance to get involved was largely a consequence of America's shambolic intervention in Somalia the previous year. Since then, the response to all remotely similar emergencies has been guided by a desire not to allow a repeat of Rwanda. Some of the results have been encouraging. NATO eventually checked Serb aggression in the Balkans, though only after the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. British troops ended Sierra Leone's terrible civil war. Last year, in Congo's Ituri region, UN peacekeepers found themselves in a position with ominous echoes of Rwanda in April 1994: outnumbered, lightly armed and unable to prevent horrific tribal killings. Instead of cutting and running, Europe sent a French-led force to restore order, with some success.
The genocide has also jolted the world into reconsidering how to prosecute mass killers. Ad hoc international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, though slow and costly, are gradually securing convictions. Several countries have passed laws allowing their courts to try those accused of genocide, regardless of where the crime was committed. The impetus to set up an International Criminal Court sprang partly from the world's shame over Rwanda. Legally, genocide is oddly defined—why is it worse to seek to eliminate an ethnic group than a socio-economic one? It is also hard to prove. Few cases are as clear-cut as Rwanda's; Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serb leader, may be acquitted of genocide, though probably not of other grave charges.
This time, never again
The surest way to prevent genocide would be to see it coming. With hindsight, there were plenty of warnings in Rwanda: speeches, editorials, preparatory massacres and so on. Outsiders did not take those warnings seriously, however, because what was being planned was so implausible. Better early-warning systems are needed: a UN special rapporteur on genocide, proposed in January by Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, and reporting directly to the security council, would be a start. But timely detection is difficult; genocides usually occur amid the haze of war. Even the most astute observers did not recognise Rwanda's for what it was until nearly two weeks after it began, by which time nearly half the victims were dead. The grimmest lesson from 1994 is that men are capable of evil most people would consider “unimaginable”, had they not seen the rows of punctured skulls.
At least three dilemmas complicate the global reaction to Darfur, experts say.
First: Access by aid workers. Not only is Darfur still a war zone, but bandits abound, making aid-worker safety a big concern. Furthermore, Sudan's government - for apparent political reasons - is reluctant to let in aid workers. Officials recently took three weeks, for instance, to grant approval for a set of United Nations satellite phones to be taken to the region.
Second: How much aid to provide. If Darfur's displaced legions get too many blankets or medicine kits they're often targeted by Arab militias, who kill and rape as they steal the goods. Some wanderers have refused aid rather than risk attack. But without enough water, food, and supplies, many may perish.
Third: Peace talks in Sudan's other war - a 20-year conflict between north and south - are gaining momentum. President Bush this week again urged the government to accept a deal. But observers worry the US may give Sudan's leaders a pass on Darfur to ensure that a north-south deal is struck.
All this is perhaps why the United Nations coordinator for Sudan, Mukesh Kapila, is ratcheting up calls for help. "It's an organized campaign to rid an entire area of a group of people," he says speaking to the Monitor by phone from Khartoum, and that means "it fits the definition of 'ethnic cleansing.'" It's a dramatic term that hasn't been applied to Darfur before. Furthermore, he says, "The government has a close knowledge of what's going on - and can influence the militia."
Dr. Kapila adds that the militia's tactics - regular rape and brutal killings - are reminiscent of Rwanda's genocide in 1994. "The lesson we learned from Rwanda is to take note of these things early and to act to stop them," he says. Clearly, the scale is different, however. Some 800,000 to 1 million were killed in Rwanda. The UN estimates 10,000 civilians have died in the Darfur conflict so far. Some 110,000, meanwhile, have fled into neighboring Chad.
The government has vehemently denied Kapila's accusations, reportedly calling them a "heap of lies." The Humanitarian Affairs department says it has facilitated "noticeable stability and the return of tens of thousands of displaced persons and refugees," the Associated Press reported.
Other observers don't use Kapila's words but agree the situation is grave. At the very least, the regime is blocking aid and starving its own people - as well as giving "support and impunity" to Arab militias carrying out vicious attacks, says John Prendergast, an Africa expert at the International Crisis Group in Washington.
The Darfur war boils down to this: African tribes have long been at odds with Arab groups in the region over access to good land. Then, last year, two armed African groups began a rebellion against the Khartoum regime. The government responded by apparently giving military support to Arab militias. There are reports of Sudanese military planes bombing villages, after which Arab militias go in and rape and kill survivors.
Such harsh tactics are used perhaps because the government sees Darfur as a threat to its very existence for two reasons.
First, one rebel group - the Justice and Equality Movement - apparently has ties to Hassan Turabi, a powerful Muslim cleric and regime critic in Khartoum. The regime sees Darfur "as a back-door way for Turabi" to wreak political havoc, says Mr. Prendergast.
Second, there's a risk that north-south peace talks will fail. If so, Darfur groups could link up with southern and eastern rebels. "That could create a solid military threat" to Khartoum "from five or six directions," says Prendergast.
This fear combines with the fact that rebel groups draw strong support - and some fighters - from Darfur's local civilian populations. This is why civilians are regularly targeted.
And it explains the government's reluctance to allow humanitarian groups into the region.
"International organizations don't distinguish between rebels and civilians," says Prof. Abdul-Rahim Ali Mohammed Ibrahim, head of the Khartoum International Institute of Arabic Language who speaks regularly with government officials. He says they worry that aid groups will inadvertently - or even consciously - strengthen rebel forces. "In the south, for instance, more than one aid group was involved in giving military help" to rebels, he says, a charge aid groups deny.
Meanwhile, the UN's Kapila, who is leaving his post next week, says he has only 55 people in Darfur to deal with the displaced masses. He wants to put at least another 30 people in, but says the government is resisting.
The UN and other groups have been able to get some aid into Darfur. On March 16, the World Food Program, for instance, delivered food to some 20,000 displaced people in southern Darfur. But Kapila says the amounts have been not nearly sufficient. And he notes that only three or four aid groups are operating on the ground - and that the International Red Cross has been kept out of the area.
Leo Roozendaal, head of the aid group CARE in Sudan, says he wants to put 30 people on the ground in Darfur. But a combination of security concerns and bureaucratic resistance has prevented him from doing so thus far. He hopes to have them in place in the next month before annual torrential rains begin.
But even if aid groups do increase delivery, displaced people may not accept the help lest they become even bigger targets of the militias.
"They say, 'Don't give us too much,' or, 'Don't give it to us now,'" says Kapila.
There are signs, however, of the government bowing to international pressure. Peace talks between the rebel groups and the government are scheduled to resume Friday in Ndjamena, Chad, after reaching a stalemate last December.
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