Ruins of Roman Theatre in Palmyra

It’s all in ruin now, more so since the Islamic State (ISIS) decided to extend the ruination in 2015. There was a brief time in the third century A.D. when Palmyra was independent and prosperous. It stood midway between Rome and Persia and was coveted by both. It was ruled by such enlightened leaders as Septimius Odaenathus and, after his death, his widow Septimia Zenobia. Under Zenobia, Palmyra controlled lands from central Anatolia to Southern Egypt.

That was too much for Rome. In 273, the Roman Emperor Aurelian destroyed Palmyra and exiled Zenobia to Rome. At that time, the city had some 200,000 inhabitants. Somewhat later, Diocletian re-established the city, but it never again grew to the size and power it had under Odaenathus and Zenobia.

It is a wonderment to me that throughout history there existed little “golden ages” of relative happiness and prosperity. At Palmyra’s height, its people were considerably wealthier than the citizens of Rome itself. By the third century, the Roman Empire itself was powerful, though its original inhabitants had passed their zenith as all the resources were spent building up the massive army presence along the northern and eastern borders.

I sincerely hope the same thing will not happen to the United States. With this election, I breathed a little more easily and had a few glimmerings of hope.


Bust from the Ruins of Palmyra in Syria

In 2015, ISIS seized the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria. They proceeded to destroy many of the standing columns, temples, and tombs while gloating over their “accomplishments.” To make matters worse, they captured and beheaded the Khalel al-Asaad, a Syrian archeologist.

This morning, I visited the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades and was delighted to find an exhibit on loan of mostly funerary statuary from Palmyra, most of which comes from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. It was titled “Palmyra: Loss and Remembrance.”

It was a revelation to me. Palmyra was neither Roman nor Greek. Their language was a dialect of Aramaic, which was the language of the Holy Land during the life of Christ and for some time after. Most of the items on display were funerary busts and reliefs from the tower tombs that dotted the landscape. The facial expressions were surprisingly realistic, though with larger, more pronounced eyes than found in Greek and Roman sculpture.

“The Beauty of Palmyra”: Obviously a Rich and Powerful Woman

Most women depicted in these sculptures were depicted holding a distaff and spindle in their hands. The statue above displays no such housewifely virtues. Instead she is bedecked with jewels on her headdress as well as her costume. The circles were once filled with precious and semi-precious stones which have disappeared in the course of time.

ISIS Gloating Over the Destruction by Explosives of the Temple of Baal Shamin on One of Their Websites

Naturally, I think ISIS’s actions in Palmyra and elsewhere show a total disregard for the antecedents of their own civilization. They will undoubtedly commit other barbaric crimes until this awful Jihadist movement is brought to account for their crimes against humanity.


Idarat al-Tawahhush

The Republican Party’s Own Contribution to Beastliness

The Republican Party’s Own Contribution to Beastliness

Last week, I read an excellent article by Juan Cole of Truthdig.Com on the subject of our entering a new era of beastliness as exemplified by Daesh/ISIL/ISIS abroad and Donald J. Trump at home. In fact, the Arabs have a word for it: idarat al-tawahhush, or out and out viciousness.

As Cole writes about the so-called Islamic State:

Most Muslims are on the fence or perfectly happy in secular societies.  They are in a “gray zone.”  Drive them into the arms of extremism either by attracting them with spectacles of power or by scaring them or by scaring non-Muslims into attacking them.

The urgency of this strategy has increased as Daesh’s fortunes on the battlefield in the dusty hinterlands of Syria and Iraq have spiraled down.  Syrian troops are at the gates of Palmyra and on the cusp of driving Daesh out of it.  Russian aircraft are bombing Daesh convoys and positions in Palmyra and near Aleppo, cutting supply lines.  Syrian Kurdish troops allied with Arab fighters have taken vast territory from Daesh in al-Raqqa and left its capital exposed.  In Iraq, Tikrit and Ramadi have fallen.  Kurdish Peshmerga have retaken Sinjar and begun cutting supply lines between al-Raqqa and Mosul.  Local Arab tribes are revolting in Fallujah, and the Iraqi military has announced the beginning of a long campaign to take Mosul.

In America, beastliness is one of the main attributes of currently leading Republican contender Donald Trump. His minions attack women journalists; he broadly attacks wide spectra of our multicultural society; and he threatens to “punish” women who have had abortions. (Is he personally going to spank them?)

Cole’s article continues on the subject of the GOP candidate:

If you take out mass violence, moreover, it is fairly easy to see that Trump himself uses the tactic of “beastliness” just as Daesh does. Where there is already chaos or conflict, he hypes it, as with his promise to kill innocent children related to terrorists or to torture people.  Or he played on existing Islamophobia by proposing a Muslim exclusion act, which is both beastly and an attack on the gray zone.

He also throws verbal firebombs to stir up chaos where there was calm.  He boasts that immigration was not even an issue in the presidential race until he made it one.  But that is because immigration is not an issue.  More Mexicans have been returning to Mexico from the US in recent years than coming here. Most immigrants are unusually law-abiding.  Illegal immigration was a much bigger problem in the 1980s and 1990s and is now a relatively small one.  Most immigrants don’t take jobs away from Americans already here: they do jobs other people don’t want to do.  (Many small midwestern hamlets depending on ranching and small farming have become depopulated as the young people went off to Chicago, and some have only been kept going or revived by Mexican farm and ranch hands).  But Trump tried to tag Mexican-Americans as rapists and drug dealers.

But then, many American voters would be all too willing to fight beastliness with beastliness of their own. And so civilization becomes ever more tattered and frayed as time goes on.


When Terrorists Control the News Cycle

It’s All a Matter of Timing

It’s All a Matter of Timing

I first discovered this during the Iraq war starting around 8-10 years ago. The forerunner of ISIS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq, never had to go all out against their American enemies: One attack every few days would keep the news cycle forever buzzing. By the time the story was ready to go to an inner page, there would be a new improvised explosive device (IED) that caused American casualties, and the fearmongering would start up again at full volume.

The bombing in Jakarta was, I really believe, such an incident. Of the seven deaths, five were up the suicide bombers themselves, so the butcher’s bill was negligible. Or it could be as little as the guy in France who attacked a police station with a meat cleaver, only to be met by a hail of bullets from the flics.

Key to this strategy is (1) maintaining a high level of fear (and ISIS knows that Americans are a bunch of scaredy cats) and (2) repeat every couple of days, preferably in a new part of the world. Next time, maybe Iceland or Paraguay or Bermuda. Make people think the ISIS baddies are everywhere and all-powerful. That serves as a potent recruiting aid to bring in new fighters and their molls, especially since there are so many millions of young suburbanites around the world who have little or no moral compass.

I think the best way to combat this strategy is to steer clear of the news: Don’t let it control your life. And feel free to sneer.

Green Zones of the Future?

Is This What the Pentagon Wants?

Is This What the Pentagon Really Wants?

I love listening to the Republican Presidential Candidates for 2016 talk about foreign policy. All agree that Barack Obama is a “pussy” and that what we need is to destroy ISIS. But do they want to send in our troops and open new Green Zones in Syria and Northern Iraq? Urm, well, not really. Although Ahmed Chalabi is no longer around to say that we would be greeted with candy and flowers, I am sure that there are some Pentagon planners who would love to see an expansion of their powers, despite the cost.

Can the United States effectively wage war in an area where it doesn’t know the language, the culture, or the players involved? I myself think that all our direct efforts would be foredoomed to failure. Perhaps we can seal off parts of the country and reserve them for tennis courts, driving ranges, and chain burger restaurants for our boys and girls in uniform. But haven’t we already done that? And with what results?

As much as we love seeing ourselves as the mighty victors of World War Two, we’ve done precious little to add to our reputation since then. But, heaven knows, we keep on trying, piling up failure upon spectacular failure. The only thing our politicians can hope for is that the voters have a short memory and an even shorter fuse.

In the end, what we are doing in the Middle East right now is probably the right thing. ISIS will eventually collapse on its own. Isn’t it really quite stupid to build a caliphate on a bunch of foreign mercenaries, some of them not even Muslim, recruited through social media?



ISIS Exists for a Reason

ISIS Exists for a Reason

Bad Asses of the World, Unite! You now have your own country, so to speak. Even if you’re not a devout Muslim, or not a Muslim at all, you now have a place to go where mayhem is sanctioned. That’s why so many disaffected youths—male and female—are making their way to Syria and ISIS, where they can be as bad as they want, just so long as it is in tune with what the self-professed Caliph, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, permits.

And that’s where many of the new recruits will go astray. In the end, organized international mayhem is not as much fun as the local criminal kind. Instead of the cops, you have the Caliph’s masked minions; and now you can be blown to bits by bombers or Kurdish Peshmerga or (unless they feel disinclined) Iraqi armed forces. It’ll take them a while to discover that, because, as we know, bad asses are not known for thinking things through. And you can’t be all that spontaneous in an organizational context.

Oh, things will be gravy for a while, as you get your own Yazidi or other heretic girl to play house with, but eventually the pall descends; and you will be interviewed by Western news media as to why you deserted the cause.



The End Times

Last Chance to Commit Depredations

Your Last Chance to Commit Depredations

I’ve always seen a preoccupation with the so-called “End Times” in the same light as James Bond’s license to kill. For one thing, the people claiming that the end times are near act with a sense of moral smugness that permits them to do whatever they want without being called to account for it. And, of course, they will soon be saved and their guilt will be a moot point.

That is particularly true in the case of ISIS. According to a recent post on CNN’s website:

A key window into understanding ISIS is its English language “in-flight magazine” Dabiq. Last week the seventh issue of Dabiq was released, and a close reading of it helps explains ISIS’ world view.

The mistake some make when viewing ISIS is to see it as a rational actor. Instead, as the magazine documents, its ideology is that of an apocalyptic cult that believes that we are living in the end times and that ISIS’ actions are hastening the moment when this will happen.

The name of the Dabiq magazine itself helps us understand ISIS’ worldview. The Syrian town of Dabiq is where the Prophet Mohammed is supposed to have predicted that the armies of Islam and “Rome” would meet for the final battle that will precede the end of time and the triumph of true Islam.

If there is any branch of Christianity I distrust, it is the Evangelical sects, whose chief preoccupation is to take whatever parts of the Bible they choose to concentrate on and use it to make their followers not only cower in fear, but continue to support the preachers who are working on their susceptibilities.

Perhaps we should send a delegation of Evangelical preachers to Dabiq and kill two birds with one stone.

What Do We Have to Offer Them?

ISIS Fighters

ISIS Fighters

By “them,” I mean disaffected teenagers of Sunni Muslim backgrounds. By “we,” I mean Western democracies such as the United States, Britain, and France. Let’s face it, Islamic immigrants are looking for a better life. Many of them find it; but many wind up as dysfunctional families in which the kids want to nullify their parents’ decision to emigrate. These teens are prime candidates for ISIS, and many are trying to make the long trip to Syria—whether they are of Syrian extraction or not—and join up with the violent forces that are wreaking such damage in the Middle East.

In the end, all we have to offer them is a bullet—perhaps the sooner the better.

I am not saying that we should forbid Muslims to enter America: It’s just that we as a society have to be prepared to accept a certain amount of undesirable blowback. Once an American kid has decided to fight in a conflict as a combatant in an organization that our country has designated as terrorist, then he possibility of a good outcome declines to near zero. This is a particular problem in Britain because so many immigrants there hail from Commonwealth countries such as Pakistan that are rigidly fundamentalist. With France, the Islamic population is predominantly North African and therefore less likely to identify with Arab goals.

What can we do? I think that intervening to prevent kids from traveling to Iraq and Syria is a good start, but difficult, especially since there are no direct flights. A teenager could fly to Europe and then enter the combat zone by flying to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or some other intermediate Arabic destination, and only then crossing the border by land.

Human nature being what it is, we cannot prevent immigrant families from becoming dysfunctional. And, let’s face it, we have troubles enough with our non-Muslim children joining gangs, taking drugs, and committing heinous felonies.


Terrorism Made Easy

What Would I Do If I Were a Terrorist?

What Would I Do If I Were a Terrorist?

What if I were one of the black hats for ISIS, ISIL, or whatever they’re calling themselves this week, I would have the world gelid with fear at relatively little cost to myself. Let’s face it, the “Dark Side” is a powerful draw for disaffected young people around the world. One can get an almost endless supply of young Arabs, Americans, Europeans, and Canadians who would be willing to blow themselves up—and take any number of innocent victims with them.

Given the way the news media around the world operate, any single incident is multiplied as if with endless mirrors for weeks at a time. Look at Benghazi: It’s still going strong for over two years. Then there’s the occasional beheading of an American or a European, interspersed with car bombs at Shia shrines. It doesn’t take much to have Faux News and their imitators spinning their heads in unison with a warning siren at max volume. One dire incident shades into another, and with relatively little effort, the whole thing looks like its continuous dripping evil spreading all over the world.

Great Symbolism! Really Evil!

Great Symbolism! Really Evil!

I’m not telling the terrorists what they don’t already know. The reach of our media stretches around the globe, so the bad guys know exactly how frightened, ill-informed, and chickenshit we are. I would not be surprised if the world spends ten trillion dollars in the next couple of months trying to eliminate ISIS or some other terrorist group de jour. In the process we are actually arming them.

Isn’t that what judo is all about—using your opponents’ strength against them? Hijacking their weapons while deciding on the next terrorist incident to occupy the news media, their anchors, pundits, and wingnut entertainers.

I must say: It’s really quite elegant.


The Republic of Fear

So You Really Think You’re Going to Catch Ebola?

So You Really Think You’re Going to Catch Ebola? I Wouldn’t Bet on It!

The news is all about fear. Fear sells. People keep coming back for more because their fear builds until it warps their decision-making process. The various news channels cannot sell soap unless they put you in a fearful state of mind. One of the reasons I do not watch the news on television—ever—is that I have no wish to be manipulated.

I am going to ask myself several questions just to give you my take on several issues in the news:

  1. Am I afraid of contracting ebola? Not at all. The only thing I might do if I have to fly somewhere while this outbreak lasts is to wear gloves and a surgical face mask during the duration of the flight.
  2. Do I think that ISIS (or ISIL or whatever) will try something in our country? Probably. We are trying to bomb them to pieces and that probably doesn’t sit too well with them, so I expect they’ll try something along the lines of our own domestic terrorists with bombs or other devices. Am I afraid of them? Not particularly. I think they’re enjoying a brief ascendancy in Syria and Iraq before even the Sunnis try to shut them down.
  3. Are My Children Going to Be Shot Dead by Crazed Gunmen? As I don’t have any children, the fear is somewhat remote for me. But are your children going to be shot dead by crazed gunmen? That is a distinct possibility, as we are doing nothing to keep guns out of the hands of homicidal idiots.
  4. Are Weird Storms Going to Level Our Cities and Towns? Oh, you can bet on it. Curiously, most of these storms occur in areas where people disbelieve that we can affect climate change. “Nice, nice, very nice, so many people in the same device.” (Read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle to understand the quote.)

At least once a year, I quote the Bene Gesserit litany from Frank Herbert‘s Dune on the subject of fear:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

So before you switch on Faux News, you might want to think twice. Don’t believe what various pundits and experts try to tell you. Occasionally they tell the truth, but only on the sixth Friday of every month. Even the newspaper can discombobulate you. Be skeptical. Be very skeptical. People make lots of money by trying to lie to you. Don’t let them get away with it.

Practice living fearlessly. I went to Peru on my lonesome and spent three weeks traveling among people who did not speak the same language as me or think the way I think. It’s good practice, actually.