The Colosseum


After the Fall

By Will Baker


This past week I’ve been on vacation. Aside from the annual chores around the house and aboard my modest sailboat, I have spent some time considering the current situation that we Americans, no, we citizens of the world now find ourselves in. It seems to me that to say we are living in interesting times could be the understatement of this young century. For example, after all our effort in Afghanistan, just two days ago the news media reported that the US backed President there had an assassination attempt made upon his life.

As I pen these lines it is 7 September 2002. As the anniversary of September 11, 2001 approaches, the citizens of my country wait with noticeable trepidation and self-consciousness. To be sure there will be marching bands and somber speeches. Heroes will be remembered and perhaps our anger over being attacked will be collectively stoked. We all know that this is a significant day but do we know what this anniversary really means? Perhaps "911" represents a sort of "watershed" and we are now living after the fall. It seems to me that a reasonable person could argue that this is true, but I just don’t know. However I do know that the drums of war are being beaten loudly now. And folks feel as if things have changed.

Last year, just prior to the terror attacks I wrote an essay entitled "The Summer of Strange." Before writing that piece I noted a pervasive feeling of pensiveness, a bottling-up as it were and I asked other folks if they felt it also, and many said that they had. I am not implying that I have some crystal ball in operation, for I’d be a liar if I said that I had, but I have the very same feeling now only it is stronger.

This summer the national news has highlighted several instances where kids have been snatched from their bedrooms and yards. Thousands of folks have been laid-off from their jobs, and countless other thousands have seen their retirement hopes dashed by plunging markets and pension funds that have gone belly-up. And we have heard of terrible reports of Afghan enemy prisoners who were suffocated to death while they were being transported to prison camps after their capture. The Senate is debating the creation of a new cabinet level department: Home Land Security, and framed by publicized instances of seemingly innocent people being harassed by our government in the name of national security, some wonder what effect all this will have on our civil rights. President Bush is poised to address a joint session of congress--an uncommon happening unto itself, and then in the hope of garnering global support for an attack on Iraq, he intends to go before the United Nations. Of course there is the over arching suspicion that our enemies might possess these so-called weapons of mass destruction--what a term that is (my five-year-old daughter recently asked me what that meant). Just try explaining a concept such as this to a small child without being concerned about irreparably spooking her sense of safety and "place" in the world.

In times such as these when I feel as if I might be out of my reckoning, I lean upon what I have learned about what has transpired in the past. For it is said that "there is nothing new under the sun," and given the predictability of the human condition "history often repeats itself." Therefore, I have searched my memory for facts that might be relevant to our situation. This exercise led to me to recall a lecture I once attended about a group of Muslim extremists, known as the "Assassins," who effectively operated long ago over a period of one hundred and fifty years. Of course I have no clue as to whether the following might have any value, but I find the information to be interesting none the less.

In Western Asia and Eastern Europe, during their zenith (from the 11th to the 13th Centuries) members of the group Al Hashashin--the name was transformed over time by the Crusaders into "Assassins," caused kings to tremble. This group possessed no kingdom nor did it field an army. However caliphs, sultans, kings and Crusaders feared them. They were Muslim extremists who lacked a traditional political power-base, but who felt compelled to exert political power anyway. Therefore they resorted to unconventional means to exert this power, at times to great effect, over an extended period of time. Through intimidation they exercised much influence on the more moderate Muslim folks ruling given regions. And by utilizing terror attacks (both large and small scale), with the perpetrators being convinced that, by virtue of their participation in the heinous activities they would go to heaven, the Assassins were able to further their interests, again, over a period of some one hundred and fifty years.

Assassin operatives were active in several far-flung countries simultaneously, and their leadership was on the move constantly, over the years/centuries, relocating again and again. After they waned, they continued to be active. In the middle of the 15th century they found themselves in Azerbaijan, and then later they moved to Sultanabad. Remnants remained there until the 19th century when their descendents moved to Iran. Their combination of non-conventional military tactics, terror, ruthlessness and religious conviction made them opponents to be reckoned with. The Assassins harried and bullied various moderate Muslim rulers and harassed and in some cases defeated the "western" forces, which decided to take them on. It took the Mongols to finally end their influence as a real power, but some survived in Syria, Egypt, Iran, Azerbaijan and other places.

It seems to me that last September 11th, the modern day equivalent of the Assassins might have attacked us--the similarities are striking. Therefore, as we go about the business of debating an attack on Iraq, we might do well to verify that the appropriate enemy is in our gun sights. Yes these echoes from the past are interesting, set against the realities of the present. But what does all this mean? Well, gentle reader that is a very good question.

Given the litany of woes and aberrant behavior outlined above, and our anxiety over last September's attacks and the feeling that we should maybe lash out in retaliation, it is tempting to argue that western society is unraveling like the sleeve of a cheap sweater. But then I think of some of my older relatives. These women would save bits of clothing and remnants of things gone by, and then transform them into wonderful quilts. Maybe after the fall, some sort of similar redemption is in store for us.

But my instincts tell me that before any redemption can occur we need to bottom-out, and it seems to me that we have yet to do so. Maybe if we attack Iraq, on our own, with the intention of overthrowing their government, we will experience another "sanitized" war. After the recent experience in Afghanistan and our last adventure in Iraq I believe we have come to expect it. I don’t really know what will happen on that account, but I do know that in order to force a regime change we will need troops on the streets in Baghdad. And I wonder how kindly the citizens of Iraq will take to that. And as far as our war on the Assassins is concerned, well I believe that is a separate thing unto itself. If history is any indication we might very well be in for a long haul. But maybe we will have an easier time with the modern day equivalent than the Crusaders did with their predecessors. And as for the instances of children being snatched from their homes, and the markets tanking and all the rest? Well, we are living in a pressure cooker. It seems to me that our society is experiencing all manner of stress, and as a result, this atmosphere of weirdness is likely to continue. I guess that’s what life is like after the fall.

But here’s to optimism about the future—after all, as a parent it seems to me that there is simply no profit in pessimism.




 (Essay Collection)