May 2011

We live in an age of unrivaled choice. I feel fortunate to be able to choose among various platforms and media to experience art and information. I love books and reading, quality paper and the culture of art and literature that has passed into the 21st Century.

But…the times are a-changin’ as they always do.

I’ve lived through the evolution of typing, from an office manual to electric, electronic, word processors and computers, and now mini-computers. I’ve watched film all but disappear in the face of digital, and now the transformation of the book is upon us.

As others have noted, physical books will stay with us for years to come–we will continue to have choices. But economics and common usage will decide the issue for most of us and the reading industry. A few years ago, I noticed one or two Kindles per trip on the New York subway. Today, I might see three riders in a row reading an ebook. Say what you want to about pros and cons, ebooks are winning in the usage department.

I have not purchased one yet. I tend to be behind the curve in personal technology. But I have no doubt that soon I will own too; a big reason, in my case, will be saving space, as I have books and papers all over the place, with no room to expand in my Brooklyn apartment.

I will savor my old-fashioned library, which will shrink as I move and pack the dust-catchers. The last book to go, if ever, will be a first edition of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, signed by my father.

By Hudson Owen, comment in response to The Annoyances of eBooks, by Megan McArdle, The Atlantic 5-20-11


Excellent essay. Postmodernism is a tricky term to pin down or hold up to the light. But you have managed to explain postmodern tourism as an abstraction on an abstraction; as a gloss or patina over the once authentic place–and how ever-modern America will fight it as Detroit is resisting ruin tourism.

But can Detroit actually rebuild? Can New Orleans? We are experiencing such huge disasters today that we might actually be entering into postmodern times; that is, a time when the will and capacity to rebuild is dwarfed by the magnitude of the loss. Such a place will become a permanent ruin, like the Colosseum in Rome.

The Colosseum was once a modern building (modern comes from the Roman word “modernus,” meaning “just now.”) Presumably, the Colosseum was repaired from time to time. But the day came when the civilization that supported the Colosseum fell and it became a permanent ruin–not because the technology to fix it had not been invented, but because the need for the structure and will to repair it was lost. That is what a postmodern world might look like.

So our postmodern world would not necessarily be a total wasteland, say, after a nuclear war, but a landscape of occasional ruin, where life has moved on. But then, the forces of neo-modernism might form extreme makeover tours, whereby tourists would sign up for vacations to fix one block in Detroit or a tornado-struck town; roll up their sleeves, get free room and board, say, and a sense of empowerment. The empire will likely strike back.

By Hudson Own. Comment in response to Welcome to Fabulous Roswell: The Rise of Postmodern Tourism by Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones The Atlantic 4-29-11.

No, it’s time to begin pulling out of Afghanistan and leaving it up to the parties involved, including Pakistan, to sort out things among themselves, however violently.

We cannot control Pakistan sufficiently to close all doors to the Afghan Taliban. It would seem in their interest to cooperate fully with us, as surely the Afghan Talibs would aid their brethren across the border to take over Pakistan and their nukes. Pakistan is more inscrutable than Churchill’s Russia.

And what kind of a peace can we bring to a country whose populace goes berserk when news that a Koran was burned 8,000 miles away reaches them? The berserkers seized guns and killed the nearest Westerners trying to help them, UN workers. I haven’t heard any apologies coming from the Karzai government. Instead, our top general lowers himself to their dirt level and apologizes to the fanatics.

Afghanistan is not the graveyard of empires so much as the graveyard of ideas. The Soviets, brutal as they were, tried to bring some modernizing ideas to the Afghan people, including education for women. That failed. Yes, it would be a shame if the Taliban comes back into power and performs the same terrible deeds as before. And it would be a worse shame if future attacks against our country are hatched again from A-stan. But enough is enough.

Either we win the war and plant the flag, or pack up our tents and leave with a warning…that if harm comes from them to us, we will re-visit them with greater harm. Much greater harm. Really scary stuff they will be compelled to comprehend.

By Hudson Owen, in response to “Why it’s Time to Negotiate With the Taliban,” by Daniel Serwer, The Atlantic, April 7, 201l.

I’ll share one post-9/11 memory.

While the fires were still burning down there (100 days), the authorities decided to demolish the buildings left standing. One day, I walked down that way and heard a bong bong bong. The street was blocked off at the end, but I could clearly see a big wrecking ball banging on the girders of WTC 5, the lowrise building on the corner across from the post office. It had held the large Borders bookstore that I visited many times during lunch hour. Walter Cronkite was one of the several celebrities I had seen sign books on the second floor. Bong bong bong, like the tolling of a large, deep bell–while FDNY hosed down the girders and burning remains of thousands of books and papers, the foreign newspapers of the world. It was the end of that world, in those 16-acres so brutally destroyed, the end of an era of relative innocence in the city. Now we had tasted mega death and had smelled cooking human flesh. Any notion of rebuilding was far into the future that day as I watched WTC 5 become a memory.

By Hudson Owen

Comment in response to The Side of Ground Zero That Obama Didn’t See by Elizabeth Greenspan, in the May 5, 2011 The Atlantic.

I was on MSNBC on the Web, when I encountered streaming video Sunday after 11 pm announcing the probable killing of Osama bin Laden, and left the Web for TV and a more comfortable chair. With each banner headline came more details, while waiting for the president to speak. I switched channels to see which stations were running the story. Then President Obama spoke, briefly and forcefully.

I had imagined that announcement many times. So while the news was riveting, it wasn’t shocking. I did not think bin Laden would be taken alive. According to the latest MSNBC rendering of events, of the five persons shot to death in the raid inside the million dollar compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, only one was armed, a courier, who got off some shots. His wife also was killed, as was one of bin Laden’s sons.

When the Navy SEALs (Sea, Land & Air) reached bin Laden’s bedroom, one of his wives rushed the commandos and was mercifully shot in the leg. The shooter then turned on bin Laden, in pajamas, and “without hesitation” shot the terror master in the head and chest. There were weapons in that room, but OBL did not have one in hand, according to the report. It seems he was executed, plain and simple.

This served both our purpose and his, given the dire circumstances. He had instructed his guards while in the mountains to finish him off if enemy forces were closing in on his hideout–he did not want to be captured. And we got our man, not in an heroic gun battle. But that did not matter.

It was a brilliant mission—the whole thing from tracking his couriers over years, to the derring-do execution at night: no American lives were lost and there was no collateral damage to Pakistani citizens outside the compound. One U.S. helicopter was lost. Where Jimmy Carter had failed in trying to rescue the American hostages taken in Iran, Barack Obama succeeded in taking out Public Enemy Number One.

Riveting news, a job well done, we got him, but late. We should have dealt with OBL first when the Sudanese were trying to get rid of him. President Clinton stated publically that the U.S. had no charges outstanding to hold the terror master. Bin Laden was not the kind of enemy you get too particular with; you find a way to make him disappear. But that would have been too easy, and the charismatic leader of al-Qaeda took up residence in Afghanistan, as guests of the Taliban. There he established training camps for future terror attacks. Bill Clinton assaulted them with a swarm of cruise missiles, and missed the leader by hours. He made several other efforts to get bin Laden.

For sure, he should have been killed or captured during the bombing of Tora Bora in October 2001, when U.S. forces and the Northern Alliance drove the Taliban and al- Qaeda from the country, and our blood was hot. I’ve listened to several versions of how bin Laden escaped, wounded by our bombs, with his band of followers over the mountains and into Pakistan. In no instance, do we come out looking good.

So now the news in Spring 2011, nearly ten years after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

* * * * *

What Osama bin Laden (1957 – 2011) did, more than anything, was to frighten us. He scared us with his growing legend of invincibility and the spectacular attack on the twin towers in downtown New York City, utterly destroying the 16-acre World Trade Center, which at first he denied having anything to do with. This tall, somber man, with the sad eyes of a poet, declared war against the United States. Twice. He was, as he saw himself, a warrior poet tilting his lance against the vaunted superpower, the crusader state standing in the way of his impossible dream of a universal caliphate. He made specific demands: that we withdraw our military forces from Arab lands and that we withdraw our support from Israel in deference to Palestinian Arabs. We refused, though we did later remove troops from Saudi Arabia.

He was, in fact, a warrior and a poet, fighting with the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets—he was on our side back then–and writing poems, sometimes celebratory wedding poems for his married children. This frightened us because our own one-dimensional cartoon superheroes are not poets. They can barely speak serviceable English. Secretly, America fears its poets; fears they might know something, after all. Maybe Osama had tapped into vast spiritual powers we had ignored in constructing our shining cities on the hill and glittering Las Vegas culture, which the young bin Laden, with money to lead the playboy life, had sampled and rejected. He had rejected us.

In some photos, bearded and gaunt and wearing a hooded garment, he resembled an Old Testament prophet inveighing against materialistic America and Israel. He was not a ranter like Hitler, at least not in public. He did not fit the Hollywood stereotype of a villain, an alien with dripping fangs. He often explained his position, softly and patiently, like a professor. He was intelligent. So, in dumbed down America, we feared him.

Osama did not pretend he could defeat us militarily. He aimed to bankrupt us. After 9/11 we built a huge security establishment and have spent hundreds of billions of dollars to defend ourselves. His operation on September 11, 2001 might have cost as little as $20,000. He wiggled his pinkie and we poured out more billions in fear for our lives, beefing up airport security, making it an eyerolling chore to fly.

Without 9/11, President Bush could not have marched into Iraq. Without the presence of bin Laden in Afghanistan, he could not have marched into Afghanistan, at first a swift, successful operation, then a slog. The mighty superpower had one foot in Iraq and the other mired in A-stan, and was bleeding billions and losing thousands of dead and wounded young Americans. The desert fox had led us into a trap.

* * * **

Bin Laden said that the inspiration for attacking the twin towers came from watching the battleship USS New Jersey lobbing one-ton shells into Syrian-held positions, in 1984, during the Lebanese Civil War. A mission that ended for the U.S. when a huge suicide truck bomb demolished the Marine barracks in Beirut, and President Reagan pulled the plug. Bin Laden noted that we cut and ran. He set up al-Qaeda four years later. He said in 2004:

“As I watched the destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me punish the unjust the same way (and) to destroy towers in America so it could taste some of what we are tasting and to stop killing our children and women.”

It turned out that we did not abandon the goal of tracking him down and “bringing him to justice,” as we like to say. Intelligence officers, without Attention Deficit Disorder, hunted him down, patiently followed his couriers; and highly trained combat teams, representing the finest in human capability and technology, pulled the trigger. We have already seen it a thousand times in TV dramas and in the movies. America sent in the A-Team, and the A-Team did the job. This raid will inspire a thousand iterations in story and song.

Osama bin Laden was buried at sea less than 24-hours after his death, according to Muslim tradition. That was nice of us. Already the doubters have surfaced. They will challenge the gruesome death photos when they are released or leaked, saying they were Photoshopped. Bin Laden will be alive somewhere, stirring up violence against the crusaders. Whatever he did in the final seconds of his life, he fought in some tough battles against a better armed foe. According to Yossef Bodansky, in his book Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America,“Mujahideen who served with bin Laden described him as fearless and oblivious to danger…He cooked with them, ate with them, dug trenches with them.” Most recently, the White House has said he did not use his wife as a human shield. In death, he will become a martyr, to some, and a ghost.

Bin Laden created al-Qaeda and lived to franchise it. The franchise is active in Yemen and Somalia. It is also under fire in those places. al-Qaeda was defeated in Iraq because the Iraqi people were too sophisticated for its brutal scholasticism. The street vendor did not like to be told to re-arrange the fruit on his stand so that the male and female parts were not touching. He had never heard of such a thing. Sunni al-Qaeda in Iraq butchered thousands of Shiites and grabbed the local women, thus violating one of bin Laden’s founding rules for the organization: good manners. After the debacle of al-Qaeda in Iraq, bin Laden issued a rebuke to them, warning against “extremism.”

Similarly, the Islamic radicals patrolling the streets of Mogadishu mete out rough justice for extra-Koranic behavior like smoking. Militant Islam has nothing to offer fellow Muslims other than pain and denial—a dry, hard residue of the once glorious caliphate–and the suppression of women. In Afghanistan, women with cell phones report the Taliban’s movements to coalition contacts. Retrograde forces can exert fearsome power over governments and people, but fail in the end to inspire.

And so do violent revolutions. As Henry Kissenger and others have noted of this Arab Spring, violence in the early phases all but guarantees violence in its latter phases. We will see if there is hope in these uprisings, where America has used military force in yet another Muslim country, Libya, as our debts grow and grow.

Few men have lived more fully than Osama bin Laden, who sired 19 children by four wives (in most accounts) and, reportedly, was a loving and playful father. Directly and indirectly, the same man caused the deaths of thousands of men, women and children. He enjoyed great wealth and lived in caves. At the time of his death, he was rail thin, a condition concealed by his flowing garments. He shook the world.

Tonight he sleeps among the fishes in the North Arabian Sea; and lives on in his videos on the World Wide Web, carefully walking the beautiful mountains in troubled lands far from his land and ours, haunting our imagination for years to come.

We got bin Laden, shot him in the head.
The bogyman is dead, the bogyman is dead.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.