Terror as Fashion

hetherington_01_nyc116981HBO is running a new documentary entitled Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington.”  Hetherington was a photojournalist who spent almost his entire adult life photographing war and conflict.  He died in Libya in 2011.  NPR has an excellent summary of the documentary as well as many of Hetherington’s pictures . That’s one of his photos to the left.

The film is well worth your time.  Much of it focuses on a documentary by Hetherington and writer/producer Sebastian Junge  called “Restrepo.” It was nominated for an Academy Award.  The team embedded themselves for almost a year with a U.S. Army unit on the remote frontline in Afganistan, creating an intimacy that few war correspondents have been able to equal. An example of that intimacy can be seen in some surprisingly powerful pictures of soldiers engaged in the act of sleep.  These simple pictures of soldiers in deep slumber are as good as it gets in photography.

At one point in the HBO documentary Junge talks about the future that Hetherington never had.  Junge states that Hetherington was looking for a new project at the time of his death and that the photographer was absorbed with “the self referential idea about war in which soldiers in war see themselves in ways that are informed by the images of other soldiers in war and there is a conscious cycle of imitation going on.”

Perhaps it was because I saw this documentary in the same week as the Boston Marathon Bombing that I have focused so intently on those words and have found myself thinking about war and terror as fashion. Even though there was much about the Boston event that was unique it seemed, at least to me, that it was just the latest in a long line of “self referential” events that are “informed by the images of other[s]” and that there is a “conscious cycle of imitation going on.”  It is an almost perfect description of fashion.

The relentlessly looping pictures of the Tsarnaev brothers only served to underscore this thought.  There’s Tamerlan, the older brother, business like in his dark glasses, dark jacket, black cap pulled low and, of course, the black backpack.  He is not unlike the photos we saw of the 9/11 terrorists calmly making their way through “security”  on their way to transform airliners into modern day kamikaze  planes. And then there is Dzhokhar, suspect #2, so young and cocky in his swagger with the backwards baseball cap and backpack full of pain and death slung cavalierly across one shoulder.  We have all seen hundreds of Dzhokars on the streets in our hometown or on the nightly news with its video from Beirut, Damascus, or Bangkok.  The Tsarnaev brothers  were perfectly normal, nothing “out of the ordinary” young men. You could “photoshop” either one of them off of Bolyston Street and place them on almost any street in the world and our reaction would be the same — these two would blend in almost anywhere.

Similarly Hetherington’s pictures seem to capture the “average” young warrior (men and women) who are startlingly familiar. Too bad he didn’t have a chance to act on that idea for a new project.

Thankfully we still have the presence of Sebastian Junge who produced a heart rendering, thought provoking tribute to his friend in the HBO documentary. The film is filled with quotes and ideas that kept rumbling through my head in the past few days, so much so that it sent me back to HBO On Demand so I could re-watch certain sections of the documentary again.

Martin RichardAt one point there is an interview with another frontline journalist, James Brabazon, who talks about his grandfather’s experiences serving in India during World War II.  “War,” the old man told Brabazon, “is the only opportunity that men have in society to love each other unconditionally.”  That statement seems so sorrowful and yet, for so many, it is true. Surely it was unconditional love that we saw in the face of Dzhokar following his brother into the history books as they prepared to manufacture hell on Bolyston Street and utterly alter the lives of so many innocent people.  But it doesn’t have to be that way. There was also unconditional love in the bright, wide-eyed smile of an 8-year old holding a simple message, “No more hurting people.”  For those who wish for a sign — whether it be from Allah or Jesus Christ — they need look no further. ☙

A Consumate Hero

Neil Armstrong died recently. The first human to walk on the moon slipped quietly into that Great Beyond.  Godspeed, Neil Armstrong.

For me the name of Neil Armstrong will be synonymous with two events.  The first, of course, is his landing on the moon.  I was “there” along with several million others as we  became transfixed before the television sets on July 20,  1969. How incredible it was. Television itself was barely out of puberty.  Most of us still had black and white sets.  In various extensions of family, friends, and human kind we huddled together, collectively holding our breath as Armstrong and his co-pilot, Buzz Aldrin,  skillfully piloted the Lunar lander to THE spot on the Moon…Tranquility Base.  I’ve always loved that…Tranquility Base.

I was with about a dozen friends, splayed out on the floor of our rented house in Lutz, Florida.  I was about to enter my last year of college.  The times, they were a’changing — an early Dylan song made all the more potent by the events of, well, the times. We were all pleasantly stoned on marijuana and marveling at the sights on the “boob” tube.  Just eighteen months before several of us had traveled to the East Coast of Florida to watch a Saturn 5 rocket launch Apollo 8 to a historic rendezvous with the Moon.  Apollo 8 would not land on the Moon but it would broadcast some incredible pictures that helped, for the first time, to put our place in space in a true perspective.  A blue, tantalizing dot in the midst of blackness.  It was all we had imagined and more.

Now, just a short seven months later, we had returned to the Moon, coming “in peace for all mankind.” It was as good as it gets in life.

But I said that Armstrong’s death brings back the memories of TWO  events in my life.  The second occurred  32 years later, in August of 2001.  I was recently widowed, struggling with  all the emotion and baggage that kind of event can bring.  A dear cousin, in a most generous moment, gave me the funds for a trip to Australia where our dearest friends lived.  Daryl, a native Australian, had spent 25 years with the World Bank.  Her husband, Craig, had worked in various performing arts’  associations in Washington, D.C.

We decided to make an adventure of it and Daryl compiled a wonderful itinerary that took us to The Center, that vast portion of Australia which remains largely uninhabited.  One spot she selected was The Bungle Bungles, or Purnululu, in a rugged part of the Kimberly.  We stayed at a remote lodge and with a small group of travelers we explored the region, gazing at oddly domed rocks, climbing other rocks, and exploring caves, like this one.

The caves were delightfully cool and offered respite from the hot sun. As we rested one of our guides began to sing a song called “Armstrong”.  The acoustics in the cave made his voice almost heavenly and the words to the song were very moving to me.  You can hear it here.

When he was finished I commented to another guide that I felt the song really captured the spirit of that incredible day when Neil Armstrong walked upon the moon.  “You saw it!” she exclaimed.  Her sense of awe was, I’ll admit, a bit unsettling.  After all, millions had seen the event on TV.  “What was it like?” she asked.  Her interest was sincere and so I told her what I could recall, which was a lot because it was an extraordinary time.  Even the venerable news anchor Walter Cronkite was bowled over by the landing and the walk.

Sitting in the far reaches of Australia that day, reliving the day Neil Armstrong walked upon the moon.  It was as good as it gets in life.  Thanks Neil. ❧

Hoisted on Your Own Petard

The Petard

The death of News of the World, the last flight of the space shuttle, and the debt crisis: these items dominated the Sunday morning talk shows today.  In recent weeks I have found myself returning to these “weekly roundups.”  I can barely tolerate the 24/7 coverage of CNN or MSNBC and will not even consider Fox News, although I have tried.  But the “roundup” shows seem to capture the important points and this week’s topics, while seemingly disparate, do seem to have a similar thread to me: they have all been hoisted on their own petard.

The petard doesn’t figure in with too much of our history these days but at one time it was as vital to soldiers as the tank or the canon is today.  The petard was a small bomb that was used to blast open doors or make holes in castle walls. From what  can probably be assumed as a humble beginning, the petard evolved to a major weapon of war, used to blast an army’s way into castles and other fortifications. According to Wikipedia, “a common tactic was to dig a shallow trench close to the enemy gate, and then erect a small hoisting engine that would lift the lit petard out of the trench, swing it up, out, and over to the gate, where it would detonate and hopefully breach the gate.  This procedure might go awry; the engineer lighting the bomb could be snagged in the ropes, lifted out with the petard, and consequently blown up.” Hence he was hoisted on his own petard.

The phrase became well known complements of William Shakespeare’s tragic hero, Hamlet, who hoisted his schoolmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the petard of Hamlet’s wicked uncle, King Claudius.  The plot was to have R&G assist with the destruction of Hamlet but the clever Dane turned the table and it was R&G who died.

Without question the News of the World wins the Hoist award for the week. The British scandal sheet has printed its last edition and, seemingly, hacked its last phone.  The British public seemed quite content when the only phones hacked were those of the Monarchy — British or Hollywood style.  But when the “reporters” turned their hacking on a missing 13-year old girl who was eventually found murdered the public turned on a dime. Worse yet, it was revealed in this same week that the eavesdropping and email snooping extended to the fallen heros of Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps as many as 4,000 families of soldiers.  The British, quite rightly, do not take to the ghoulish invasion of privacy that this story suggests.  After all, what was the point? To listen to heartsick family members mourn the loss of their brave soldiers?  To perhaps hear anger at British policy that has supported a decade-long war?  It is incomprehensible and no amount of recompense can resolve this gross violation of privacy but attempts will be made.  As early as April the paper’s parent company, Rupert Murdock’s tainted News International, established a ₤15 million compensation fund for hacking victims.  The writing was on the wall even then.  Today the estimate is closer to ₤120 million and the damage has only begun to surface.

Mr. Murdoch, being no fool, has tucked his tail and turned the other way. While the “reporters” and hackers at NoW have already been hoisted it remains to be seen if the General will get his comeuppance.  One can only hope.

Meanwhile, the space shuttle Atlantis is orbiting around the world for the last time and upon its (hopefully) safe return the shuttle program is no more.  As one who has thrilled to the accomplishments of the space program from its very beginning I cannot help but feel we are loosing far more than a “space truck”.  I can remember Alan Shepherd’s 15 minute blast into space.  My high school day stopped dead and, what few TVs we had, were tuned to the grainy, black-and-white event.  Students crowded cheek-to-jowl to see the blastoff and anxiously await the recovery.  In December 1968, while in college, I witnessed the blast-off of Apollo 8 on a cold beach in Florida.  I felt the thunder of the Saturn 5 rocket shake the very core of my being and watched the ascent of three brave men who were going to the moon, albeit just to circle that orb a few times and then head home.  But wonderfully those orbits came on Christmas Eve and the words of Genesis read by Frank Borman were universal enough to appeal to people of all faiths, to all the people of this world.  It was an earth uniting moment that gives me chills even today as I write.  It was a colossal moment of hope.

Space shuttle arrived with perhaps less sex appeal.  No moon trips for this baby.  But it would do great things. We were sure of that. And it has.  The international space station is no small feat and repair of the Hubble satellite alone was worth the investment. Those of us who grew up in the glamor days of space travel knew that nuts and bolts work was a part of it.  Pay the price because space is important.  Think of it every time you velcro up your jacket or shoes, or look at the computers that you carry everywhere or type in an address on your GPS.  It was the space program that brought these marvels to you.

And now the American space program is … what? Where?  How, in these times particularly when there seems so little hope, how can we close the shuttle program with no viable future for American involvement in space other than “private enterprise” and some vague pronouncement from the Obama Administration about space programs that have no time table.  The man who had the audacity to hope has not applied that hope to space.

But NASA shares a huge part of the blame in this.  Their policy from the beginning of the space shuttle program was to make space flight “routine.”  We no longer had “space ships” or “spacecraft”.  It was NASA itself that first used the term “space truck”.  At one time, in their hubris, NASA predicted a flight every month from the space shuttles.  The astronauts were no longer the glamorous people of the Mercury 7 or the Gemini 13.  They were “payload specialists” and NASA downplayed their personalities, choosing instead to float special candidates to the top, like Sally Ride (America’s first woman in space) and teacher Christa McAuliffe.  In part this was to protect the astronauts but the net result was no heros.  Only those who died became heros and the colossal waste of these failed missions — both in lives and financial investment — did little to help NASA in its public relations efforts to keep Americans excited about the positive accomplishments of space travel. NASA has been hoisted too.

Which brings us to the debt ceiling crisis that is playing out in agonizing (and numbing) detail on our TVs each day.  Chicken Little with his cries of a falling sky looks like a rank amateur compared to the players in this drama. The sad part is that the sky really is about to fall and we (with apologies for metaphor mixing) are like lambs to the slaughter.  The public is so ideologically bludgeoned that it can no longer determine what is real and what isn’t.  The media, playing the role of Chicken Little with remarkable likeness, clamors daily about the dangers but it fails to give the public the reliable data it needs to make a decision and raise an upcry.  Fareed Zakaria the columinist and commentator, has done the best job of explaining the failure that I have heard.  Speaking on NPR, he succinctly noted that the budget is about numbers, not ideology.  So much money coming in, so much money going out.  It is simple math to make things work but both political parties have made even the process of math ideological.  Democrats won’t accept cuts, Republicans won’t increase revenue.  The result? A very real and dangerous situation in which the United States of America may, for the first time in 235 years, default on its loans.  The political parties are already hoisted on their own petards but the great fear is that they are about to take us there with them.❧