Rant Day, Ten Years On

Friday, September 9th, 2011

Ten years ago this day, the Web rudely told Joseph Fouché that Ahmed Shah Masood had been assassinated:

I was annoyed.

I hated the Taliban. To me, they were the enemy of all mankind. My hate didn’t single them out for their Third World thuggishness, their seventh century flavored oppression, or their harboring of a declared enemy of my country.

No, I hated them for blowing up some statues that had stood for 1,500 years.

For 1,000 of those years, Islam had lived besides the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. Time and the enthusiasm of the occasional iconoclast had vandalized the statues by March of 2001. But the Taliban of March 2011 had ambitions to be the Taliban of March 622. They had the means of 2oo1 to carry out the imagined ends of 622. Dynamite, artillery, and rocketry let the Taliban do in three weeks what history had failed to do in fifteen centuries.

History is a fragile flower. What survives the unfolding of events is idiosyncratic. We inherit only a few suggestive piles of rubble. From these, numberless castles of the imagination have been conjured. One particularly insistent ghost of conjured history drove the Taliban to destroy the statues : the idealized community erected by Muhammad in Mecca and Medina from the hegira in 622 to his death in 632. This phantom umma, antiseptically removed far from the sordid and compromised Islam of March 2001, looked down on the Taliban from 15 centuries back and commanded them to erase the Buddhas of Bamiyan from history. They promised that, as each piece of the shattered idol flew away, the sacralized community of the Prophet would draw nearer and nearer.

And so the statues fell.

Since history swallows its own tail anyway, I oppose those who feel that it needs their enthusiastic help. History does a fine job on its own. Human meddling in what survives and what doesn’t is unnecessary. Accident and negligence will always consume more history than intention could ever aspire to. But the Taliban wanted to speed the work of history along. They figured that they could not only make it faster but that they could it flip 180 degrees and make it run backwards. So they declared war on history.

To me, this made them barbarians. To me, they deserved to be removed from history themselves. The only man who seemed to be actively helping the Taliban to remove themselves from history seemed to be Massood. And now Massood had gone to Allah, assisted by the same barbarians.

Downstairs I went. I ranted in the kitchen about the tragedy of Ahmed Shah Massood and his death to Mom and the occasional passing brother. They didn’t know who Ahmed Shah Massood was or where this Afghanistan was. To them, it was a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom they knew nothing. Massood might as well have been the Massood in the Moon, fighting to keep one small grubby corner of the lunar surface free of space Taliban.

Mom patiently listened as dinner was set. Over the years, she’d grown used to my ranting on and on about this or that distant obscurity. She knew that, with time, I’d fulminate my way out of my idée fixe of the moment and go back to quietly tending my garden of trivia. The world would go on. Normalcy would flow unvexed into the future. Rant mode ran out of steam. I ate dinner. I went back to my lair where my books and my computers would protect me. The sun set on September 9th, 2001. I went to sleep.

Two Buddha statues and the Lion of Panjshir would be only be the first to fall. Unseen in the gathering dark, history, with brutal intent, blatantly ignoring its own end in 1989, was creeping up on the East Coast to be reborn.

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