Al Qaeda: The Looming Terror
An AC360 investigation into the formation of al Qaeda, where they are now, and their illusive leader.
Tomorrow night, 10 p.m. ET
-CNN.com, 11 November 2007

A little over ninety years ago, Vlad Lenin completed a relatively bloodless takeover of power in what was then Russia. It had taken about eight months to become obvious that democracy had failed.

But, as in so many American wars of the last half-century, the takeover of government was just the beginning. Protracted fighting across the nation, against royalist-revivalists, lasted for years after the “revolution” was complete.

Lenin had written a pamphlet at the turn of the century laying out the plans and predictions for this coup, eventually leading to successful execution 15 years later. It was called Chto Dyelat? (transliteration), which can roughly be translated as “What is to Be Done?” The question seems profoundly relevant tonight, when I am somehow railing in frustration at nothing at all.

The question sounds more elegant in Russian. My frustration needs some art tonight.

Emily and I went to a movie tonight, “Lions for Lambs”. It was pretty awful. The movie simultaneously lacked subtlety and clarity. It pounded one over the head with preachy nothingness. Despite CNN (why do I keep quoting this source?) saying the movie was targeted at a “thinking-person’s” audience, the movie seemed to be written for toddlers. And the final conclusion, a crescending call-to-action, was left blank. There was no action. Only an uneasy settling of the fact that CNN (renamed in the movie to prevent a lawsuit) was so deeply manipulating the news as to distort reality. And the absence of action spoke louder than the prior 86 minutes of calling for action.

You can feel Robert Redford’s frustration in the film. It’s everyone’s. Everyone who ever believed in this “democracy” feels so swindled and cheated that they don’t even know which end is up. At least Vietnam gave everyone a fighting chance. People seemed to react to reality in Vietnam. People cared. Injustice was met with horror rather than indifference. The media took the right side. There was hope. Replication of Vietnam in perpetuity over the coming generations might not have been ideal, but it would’ve worked. People could’ve slept at night knowing they had some power or control in “their country”.

But this? What is this? When every aspect of the country has been sold and everyone who could care is in debt or discredited, how can one even begin to mount a response? What would it even look like? Who would be left to care?

So you have this slow choking of American belief in democracy and destiny and all those so-called lovely things we used to care about. Redford was trying to make a movie to shake some hope into people, as near as I can tell. He ended up making a deafening case for hopelessness. His suggested actions are to either (A) go to Afghanistan and get perforated by bullets for no reason after killing people who are not the enemy or (B) stare in horror at the television while realizing that everything you’ve done in your life is worthless.

Oh boy.

He really wanted to have a suggestion at the end there. But it was left blank for the audience to fill it in. At least Al Gore’s equally terrible movie ended with hundreds of suggestions for what you can do to “prevent global warming”. At least he maintained the illusion that corporations are not in control of the planet, but individuals are. At least he maintained the noble lie, full of hope and strong lyrics.

Illusion. Let’s get back to that word. No one proofreads anything anymore. I have to remind myself when reading documents for the people I work for. I sit there, sometimes, thinking “Helen Rosner and I are the only people left on the planet who care about proofreading.” Today’s news doesn’t have time for proofreading or copyediting or even thoughtfulness. As in the movie, it’s about getting facts up on the roll. Or maybe it’s as my Dad would say and no one wants to work anymore. Personally, I think it might (as in tonight’s example) be the universe fighting back, railing through little clues to conspire against a plutocracy hell-bent on recreating something between the Fall of Rome and the Extinction of the Dinosaurs.

Osama bin Laden, not even bothered to be named in CNN’s website promo for its latest shock-n-awe program about idle terrorists, is described as “their illusive leader”. Now whether it’s because grammar is dead or work is dead or what have you, the intended phrase was probably “elusive leader”. As in hard to find. But the devil, they say, is in the details.

The sentence instead reads that the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, is an illusion. A mirage. And just to make sure that the universe is with us on the themes of tonight’s show, Dictionary.com’s first full entry for the word gives us this: “based on or having the nature of an illusion; ‘illusive hopes of finding a better job’; ‘Secret activities offer presidents the alluring but often illusory promise that they can achieve foreign policy goals without the bothersome debate and open decision that are staples of democracy'”

That actually gave me chills just now. You can look it up.

Orwell tells us this in 1984:

The program of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: perhaps somewhere beyond the sea, under the protection of his foreign paymasters; perhaps even–so it was occasionally rumored–in some hiding place in Oceania itself.

An argument could be made that it would be better a Two Minutes Fear. And while there is plenty of fear of Goldstein and fear in general laden throughout the ceremonies of Orwell’s Oceanians, it’s hard to rally around fear. Of course, the real powers don’t want people rallying at all. The real powers are squarely between Orwell and Huxley, using just enough manipulation and self-destruction to form their brew.

Go back to your Orwell. And your Huxley. And your Bradbury. And then tell me: Chto Dyelat? Because their answers weren’t very good either. Retreat. Run. Maybe you can make it to the woods or the Falklands or maybe they’ll get you first and take you to Abu Ghraib and torture the hope out of you. Maybe you can read or write or remember and be the last living testament to the way things were.

And I know dystopias end badly because they’re supposed to be cautionary tales. But we already blew through those checkpoints. There was no caution.

In a dystopia, my friends, what is to be done?