October 12, 2001
A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare
Border, nor breed, nor birth
Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgement Seat....
The Ballad of East and West
According to prison-camp survivors, the Japanese during World War II used to "torment" their prisoners by shouting, "To hell with Babe Ruth!" That vicious tactic of pitiless psywar popped into my mind the other day when I read a transcript of Osama bin Laden's diatribe against the infidel (that's us) in which he proclaimed: "God Almighty hit the United States at its most vulnerable spot. He destroyed its greatest buildings."
Actually, it didn't hit me with its full enormity until I was sitting in front of the television, with the cat in my lap, in post-prandial stupor (both mine and the cat's), watching a badly produced travelogue on one of the many cultural cable channels that blight the airwaves. A group of noble nomads were returning home to their native oasis, having survived the rigors of desert travel, which survival, "they appreciate, is only through the personal blessing of Allah." The noble nomads were entering, barefoot, what may once have been the doorway of an almost entirely ruined mosque. Only a few stones here and there marked the outlines of a building. Upon entering, and again upon exiting, they touched every possible surface of the structure, rubbing grit loose with a stone and smearing it over their faces, stroking their hands and arms against an upright surface, pressing themselves into the walls. I think the Western viewer was supposed to equate those rituals with, for instance, the Catholic's blessing himself with holy water upon entering a church or the Russian Orthodox worshipper's touching an icon in prayer, but it was easy to see the difference. It was the difference between touching forehead and shoulder with a few drops of water on three fingers and sluicing oneself in the stoup.
To continue for a moment with spiritual comparisons, there are other differences of observance in religious rituals between East and West. I don't eat meat on Fridays. It's a pious practice and a symbolic acknowledgement of certain doctrinal issues. I don't consider meat to be ritually unclean, and I'm not defiled if I come into contact with a rasher of bacon. The whole concept of "ritually unclean" escapes me, as it does most Westerners. What does it mean to be defiled, shamed, made unworthy to participate in religious or social rituals, through coming in contact even inadvertently with a person or a thing? Worse, to be able to pass the defilement on to somebody else until you go through a cleansing ritual? It's hard to avoid thinking that this is an obsession that grips the visceral core of the non-Westerner, bypassing his ability to reason and going straight for the gut. Western observance assumes the reasoned acceptance of creation's bounty in which freedom of choice and rational discourse with the Creator are a given.
Radical differences are also demonstrated in warfare. We've become more familiar in recent weeks than perhaps we want to be with the concept of dying a holy death by taking the enemy with you, but it's not just a Muslim idea. Think back on the Japanese pilots who took out military targets in the same way the 911 pilots did, albeit with smaller aircraft and less substantial targets. There's a special absolutism in the way the non-Westerner goes to war.
Remember the Japanese soldiers who were found, still in combat mode, on remote Pacific islands years after V-J Day? Can you imagine finding a member of Stonewall Jackson's "foot cavalry" blundering around in the underbrush of the Maury River years after Appomattox instead of going home and getting on with the business of rebuilding the barn? Even if he hadn't heard the war was over? No bloody way.
Non-Westerners just don't get it. To be fair, Westerners don't get non-Westerners, either. From someplace around the Levant southward, and definitely east of Suez, there exists a mental divide so profound between the West and the rest that neither side is equipped to coexist with the other. That inability to get inside the other guy's head puts us equally at a disadvantage in psychological warfare. We simply don't know where each other's buttons are, let alone how to push them.
I don't know about you, O Best Beloved, but I am not personally and irrevocably diminished by the toppling of the World Trade Center, nor would I be similarly diminished by the destruction of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, Westminster Abbey, Monticello, or Saint Peter's Basilica. Saddened, no doubt, and angered, most probably, but the buildings are only that buildings. Things that we or our forebears built. Such structures demonstrate that we possess a sense of beauty or proportion; that we have developed mathematical and engineering skills; that we can plan and schedule and execute in an orderly manner. And even if the building is gone, those attributes within our souls and minds that made their creation possible in the first place remain. It's not a deadly insult to destroy them, nor does their destruction remain an open wound.
So Bin Laden has determined that by saying, in so many gestures, "To hell with the World Trade Center," he has struck a great blow in the war against the infidel? Or, more to the point, Dubya and his advisors have determined that by lobbing cruise missiles into military compounds the NATO monolith is striking a great blow in the war against the Muslim menace? I won't pretend I can get inside the non-Western mind well enough to define what sort of target might be a psychological equivalent, to the Afghanis, of the World Trade Center. I just know it ain't the power grids of Kabul.
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