An Age of Anxiety, Through Artists' Eyes
All the ladies in Washington scrambling to get out of town/Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down.
-- Bob Dylan,
"Thunder on the Mountain"
Any attempt at holiday cheer faces a long, hard Rumsfeldian slog as 2006 ends. Iraq's conflict has metastasized into a brutal communal war. George W. Bush wrestles fitfully to salvage a failing presidency. And Ayman al-Zawahiri resurfaces on videotape at Yuletide to remind non-Muslims and non-fanatical Muslims alike that they are still in al-Qaeda's sights.
But 'tis also the season to note with relief that 2006 was a year of books, films, music, blogs and other "platforms" that helped the nation more fully understand the meaning of life, and at times death, in this age of globalized terrorism. In the fifth year after Sept. 11, 2001, the adaptability and survival instincts of the human spirit -- the psyche's pushback against terror -- came into clear focus through some exceptional creative works.
So let's modify the traditional year-end list of compelling books on foreign affairs to reflect that focus -- and the increasing diversity of sources that inform us how the world works. The ease of renting or buying foreign movies in DVD format today gives those interested in international relations extraordinary insights into life under Iran's ayatollahs (Manijeh Hekmat's "Women's Prison''), the motivations of Palestinian suicide bombers (Hany Abu-Assad's "Paradise Now'') or French fantasies about doing away with the Arab-African ghettos in their midst (Luc Besson's "District B13'').
The book of the year is Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Tower," in which the New Yorker staff writer traces the philosophical and personal origins of al-Qaeda and then explains how a relatively small band of desperados repeatedly got past the defenses of the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Council's counterterrorism squad and the U.S. military to carry out the attacks that culminated in the rain of fire and destruction over Manhattan and at the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
Be warned: You, too, may have to fight back a feeling of nausea when reading about the CIA's willful obstruction of FBI efforts to find Sept. 11 plotters already on American soil. You may wonder why Bush did not order prosecutions for misfeasance in office rather than showering agency chiefs with medals. And you will not be able to forget Wright's masterful portrait of FBI agent John O'Neill, who fought al-Qaeda, was thwarted by bureaucratic nonsense and, after retiring, died in the wreckage of the World Trade Center.
The novel of the year is John Updike's "Terrorist," which explores the enormously neglected psycho-sexual dimension of the clash of civilizations. Updike's title character is a Muslim teenager raised by his Irish-American mother in New Jersey after they are abandoned by his Egyptian father. Ahmad's homicidal rage is triggered by the open sexuality and hedonism of Western women -- especially as displayed by his mother. His violent confusion represents the blind fury of backlash by many Muslim men against the gaudy public vulgarity and "loose" family ways of Western societies. They will not risk losing control of "their" women.
No other film matched "United 93" for relevance and artistry in 2006. Director Paul Greengrass captures the extraordinary heroism of ordinary citizens who fought to recapture the hijacked airliner after learning of the World Trade Center attacks, to crash it into a Pennsylvania field rather than let it strike the Capitol in Washington. Theirs was the human response of a nation under attack, reacting even as the attack was underway. It came from the bottom up, which is how societies survive. The passengers of United 93 did not wait for a Homeland Security Department to be formed.
Survival is also the theme of Bob Dylan's "Modern Times," this geezer's top musical release of 2006. It's a stretch to include it here because of the isolated phrases that I take to refer to real or feared terrorist attacks. But Dylan's vivid, dark imagery of persevering in the face of death, loss or attack does fit the mood of a holiday season in which survival should also be counted as a blessing.
Jews have long been accustomed to holidays dedicated to exactly that sentiment, as Ron Dermer, an Israeli diplomat in Washington, pointed out at a Hanukkah celebration the other day.
"Hanukkah marks one more occasion when Jews fought to throw off oppressors," he said. "When we have a holiday, the message usually is: 'They tried to kill us. They failed. Let's eat.' " So remember to thank 2006 for some things that didn't happen, as well as to see it out with regret for many of the things that did.