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Ming Zhen Shakya

Tale of Two Cities

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

The visual impact of a disaster lessens directly as we review the filmed record of it. The media show the detailed, bigger-than-life images again and again until we habituate to the shock. From wear, the horror seems to fade and shrink.

But sometimes the disaster encapsulates itself in a single image, a snapshot that concentrates the tragedy and holds it in a latent state until an unexpected recollection awakens and expands it. We relive that first awful incredulity, the terrible realization that what we're seeing is in fact true.

For a neighbor of mine, a musician, the tragedy of Nine-Eleven is condensed into the photo of a New York City piper who slumps in brutal fatigue, his face forlornly asking how many more times his bagpipes could escort a fallen fireman to the grave. He cut the picture out of a magazine, put it in a clear plastic envelope, and hung it on the wall of his garage, under a calendar. He knows he'll see it at least once a year.

For me the horror contracted into the video trail of a man who was ejected from atop the exploding tower, his arms flailing in a desperate attempt to catch hold of another reality on his endless way down to the street.

Months pass and we are left with only a vague Nine-Eleven misery. We see a movie and regardless of the point in the action, if the New York skyline comes on-screen, we're transfixed both by the absence or by the presence of the Towers. If they're there, we feel a strange discomfort -- they're there and they don't belong there. We want to blot them out of the image. If the skyline appears and they're not there, we search the line, trying to remember exactly where it was that the Towers used to be. New York seems so ordinary without them.

Last Fall the President began to insist that the UN force Iraq to comply with U.N. resolutions. France led the counter argument; and as the verbiage grew, the word "force" was variously defined, as was the word "comply." The President spoke of Iraq, Al Queda and Weapons of Mass Destruction; but his detractors called this connection "unfounded and unfair." Most of us, though a bit baffled by the sudden "hot button" nature of the issue, proceeded on faith. The mystery held no clue until we learned that North Korea was back in the nuclear weapons' business.

And so, the Cruise missiles, ever so surgically, struck Baghdad. It was a sight we weren't quite prepared for. A dozen years of toothless U.N. resolutions, the Iraqi cat-and-mouse handling of the inspectors, the President's U.N. address; and finally the Coalition's ultimatum.... and still, when the missiles hit Baghdad we were all surprised.

Then the Coalition Forces entered Iraq and in the small towns we saw the interior walls of barber shops and grocery stores; and we saw, to our astonishment, that they were gaily decorated with folk-art depictions of the Towers being struck by planes. No, they weren't commercial jet liners filled with men, women and children who didn't have a clue that they were about to be incinerated - these were little planes - single-seat fighters like WWII Japanese Zeroes, Kama Kazi, the Divine Wind of martyrdom, the single-minded terrorist who could reduce a monument to rubble. It was warfare, as a child sees it.

The artistic renditions were not government handouts - the obligatory posters of a nation's proud accomplishment. They were crudely drawn - like storefront windows painted at Christmastime by enterprising students. In this Iraqi folk art there was no room inside the little planes for ordinary people and there was no Flailing Man falling from the top of a skyscraper.

The decorations were as ubiquitous as the "Kilroy was here" drawings of World War II - so many that the shock gave way to anger. I thought about the huge explosions in Baghdad; and the Flailing Man seemed to pause in his descent long enough to point in the direction of those small Iraqi towns and say, "If it's destruction like this you want on your walls... have we got a mural for you."

When the troops moved close to Baghdad, we saw the definitive graphic on the subject: an expertly wrought portrait of Saddam Hussein posed triumphantly in front of the exploding towers, with a cigar held close to lips that grinned with paternal satisfaction. The message was indisputable: he ws taking credit for Al Queda's terrorist act, this gift to his countrymen.

The American troops who took Baghdad gave Saddam Hussein's boast all the credence he desired. When the marines helped pull down Saddam's statue, they first placed an American flag over Saddam's face - the flag just happened to be the very flag that was flying over the Pentagon when it was struck on Nine-Eleven.

Further evidence of the romance between Iraq and Al Queda came a day after the fall of Baghdad. Osama bin Laden, stung by Iraq's defeat, called upon Muslims to take revenge upon those Arab states that were "agents of Bush and Blair," specifically. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bahrain.

And what about those weapons of mass destruction? The gas, the germs, the nuclear warheads? Coalition critics made much of the troops' failure to uncover chemical or biological weapons, as if absence of evidence was proof of innocence, as if after only a few days of combat, the investigation was complete. We were prepared for gas or biological attacks; but little or no mention was made of nuclear weapons.

During the United Nations' procrastinating debates, North Korea, reassured by the strength of the French-led opposition, claimed that since it was defending itself against a U.S. invasion, it would discuss its illegal weapons' production only with the United States. This was clearly a provocative ploy, one designed to further anti-american propaganda. The President refused to consider such a condition and demanded that China, South Korea, and Japan be included in the talks; but North Korea flatly rejected this. The day after Baghdad fell, North Korea quietly announced that it would comply with U.S. demands. Talks with its concerned neighbors were immediately scheduled.

Iraq, contrary to the impression given by its citizens, is a rich country; but North Korea is a poor one. Although it is only the size of Nicaragua and has little arable land and natural resources with which to support its population of 22.2 million, it has an army of 1,082,000 active personnel. One out of every 21 North Koreans is in the military. Contrast this with Romania which has 22.3 million people and an army of 103,000, which is one out of 216 people. (The U.S. is one out of 205; the U.K. is one out of 283.) Aside from maintaining such an inexplicably huge military force, North Korea has a nuclear weapons' research and development program which was initiated immediately after the last Gulf War; and it also produces medium range missiles with which it can deliver those weapons. Where does a poor country like North Korea get the money to fund such costly programs? If Tony Blair, George Bush, and John Howard did not consider the possibility that Iraq had been financing these programs, they certainly should have.

Saddam Hussein has long coveted a nuclear weapons' capability. In the 1970s France built a nuclear research facility for him in Iraq ("Osiraq") and had supplied him with the necessary U-235. When it was determined that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons at Osiraq, Iran bombed the facility in 1980 and, in 1981, Israel completed its destruction. There was no way for Saddam to develop nuclear weapons at home.

Now that the war is winding down, we are better able to assess the wisdom of the Coalition's objectives. We've seen the torture chambers, the mass graves, the opulent palaces, the decadence of Saddam and Sons, and the sadism - yes... that plastics' grinding machine we had been told about - the one into which Saddam threw his enemies and about which one witness said, "The lucky ones were thrown in headfirst" - that machine has been seized by the Marines - as have all those telephone records which show how completely the U.N. Inspectors' communications were bugged.

It's time, also, that we consider a domestic problem:: what to do about celebrities who, in this age of mass media exposure, forge themselves into a kind of Shadow Government, a non-elected opposition party who see it as their right and privilege to castigate duly elected political leaders, to undermine and jeopardize other citizens who will fulfill the directives of those leaders, to influence negatively the course set by those elected officials, to enter foreign countries and, using fame as a substitute for authority, convince foreign audiences that they - the music, TV and film stars - represent the nation.

While U.S., British, and Australian troops were gathering in Kuwait - just a few short weeks before they would enter combat - many American movie stars attended the Berlin Film Festival and used the occasion to influence foreign opinion against President Bush. As reported in the news, here is Richard Gere's pronouncement:

"Bush's plans for war are a bizarre bad dream. There doesn't appear to be any sort of basis for any of this.

"I have a feeling something hidden is at work here that will someday see the light of day.

"I keep asking myself where all this personal enmity between George Bush and Saddam Hussein comes from. It's like the story of Captain Ahab and the great white whale from Moby Dick."

Gere, a Buddhist, added:

"We have to say stop, there's no reason for a war. At the moment Hussein is not threatening anybody.

"It'd be different if he was staring somebody down with a loaded gun in his hand. But there doesn't seem to be any indications whatsoever that this man poses an immediate threat to anybody.

"America has never paid any attention to other people, so it's absurd for Bush to say that it's all in the best interests of the Iraqi people.

"If the United States marches into Iraq without the backing of the United Nations, that will be done entirely without the backing of the American people." (Ananova, Berlin, 2/10/03)

I don't know which United States Gere is referring to, but the one I live in backed the President.

Artists and performers correctly argue that they are entitled to privacy in their personal lives. Their fame does not give the public a right to information about their children, their medical conditions, their marital or financial problems; and celebrities are entirely justified in protecting such information from public scrutiny. Many artists have led lives that do not meet those criteria the public considers 'an acceptable norm.' An artist who is convicted of a crime or who has a different sexual orientation or enjoys any kind of alternate lifestyle or political or religious affiliation can justifiably insist that his art be judged independently of his private life. We can and should separate the man from the quality of the work. To do otherwise is to judge the work by the man in which case every scribble by our Nana or PopPop ought to qualify for Nobel consideration.

But the other side of this coin is that just as their fame causes a disproportionate public interest in their private lives, their private opinions about matters of state are given disproportionate weight. When a celebrity - whose opinion would receive no notice whatsoever were he or she not a celebrity - takes the podium or holds a press conference or in any way uses his fame to gain attention to his views, proffering them as though they had value commensurate with their celebrity status, they are intruding into the public interest. Especially in matters of international significance, a leader makes decisions based upon intelligence to which the public has no access. When movie stars inject their opinions into matters of state, deliberately making the subject controversial, they do a disservice not only to the nation but to the hundreds of people involved in their professional projects. Actors, production crews, and investors all suffer financially when the public refuses to support someone whose views are seen to give aid and comfort to the enemy.

And the celebrated persons who mocked the President and praised Saddam Hussein and derided the American way of life then insist that when their projects are canceled because of the controversy surrounding them - controversy they, themselves, have created, this is further evidence of the immorality of American society. They complain that they are being denied their American right to free speech. (I have enjoyed The West Wing - the writing and the acting has been wonderful. But I confess that I simply cannot look at Martin Sheen and see him as the president when all I can see is that pathetic protest picture of him with duct tape across his mouth - with PEACE written on it - as he clutches... what was that? a Cross? )

Self-elected Shadow Government spokesmen and other arbiters of morality usually resort to 'hit and run' publicity tactics.

Where are the Human Shield volunteers who made such a grand show of going to Iraq to protect innocent Iraqi citizens from American atrocities? After they had their interviews they disappeared from sight. Many of them were truly surprised when Saddam Hussein announced that he intended to station them at military installations. Why do we not hear from these martyrs now?

Chan Buddhist anti-war activists are usually Buddhist converts who don't entirely appreciate the difference between monastic precepts and the rules which apply to Buddhists who must live according to the requirements of citizenship. D.T. Suzuki frequently made this distinction clear:"The Zen Man must live in society!" he'd insist, in defense of the citizen Buddhist.

When an Asian country goes to war we can be certain that in the ranks of its military are many Buddhists. These Buddhists were born into the religion; and they fight not only to preserve their religion, but their family, community, country, and culture. Western Buddhist converts sometimes assume that, having risen above the religions into which they were born, they have demonstrated moral and intellectual superiority over all 'common-man' religions, including, apparently, Buddhism.

The Iraqi War will have its souvenirs and snapshots. I think the picture I will remember most is that of Marine Corporal Edward Chin as he draped the American flag over the face of the statue of Saddam Hussein. Corporal Chin was born in Burma of ethnic Chinese parents. They are all Americans now, living in New York. Although I've been unable to verify this, I'm told that they are also very good Buddhists.  


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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