Roving thoughts and provocations

Strangers on a Train

Charles Simic

Baker Street
Sergio Larrain/Magnum

Everyone who walks the busy streets of a city takes imaginary snapshots. For all I know, my face glimpsed in a crowd years ago may live on in someone’s memory the same way that the face of some stranger lives on in mine. Of course, out of the hundreds of people we may happen to see in a day, we become fully aware of only a select few, and often not even that many if we have too much on our minds. Then it happens.

All the poets who loved colorful street life, starting with Whitman and Baudelaire, knew that the unforeseen was one of the inherent qualities of the beautiful. We come face to face with someone, or we catch a peek at them from the corner of our eye and the camera in our heads clicks, suspending the image. Here is a tall, well-dressed young woman with a look of utter despair in her eyes and an incongruous smile on her lips. In the next instant, she’s gone and we forget her as we busy ourselves with other things, except she may reappear later that day to haunt us, or in a month, or even years after, like some snapshot we found in the shoebox in the attic that we can’t stop looking at because we no longer remember who that person in it was or when or where it was taken.

Father Maciel, John Paul II, and the Vatican Sex Crisis

Alma Guillermoprieto

Pope John Paul II blesses Father Marcial Maciel, November 2004

Of all the terrible sexual scandals the hierarchs in the Vatican find themselves tangled in, none is likely to do as much institutional damage as the astounding and still unfolding story of the Mexican priest Marcial Maciel. The crimes committed against children by other priests and bishops may provoke rage, but they also make one want to look away. With Father Maciel, on the other hand, one can hardly tear oneself from the ghastly drama as it unfolds, page by page, revelation by revelation, in the Mexican press.

The Times Square Bomber: Homegrown Hatred?

Ahmed Rashid

Pakistani demonstrators
Banaras Khanb/AFP/Getty Images

The Pakistani media is in a state of apoplexy about the would-be Times Square bomber, the Pakistani-born US citizen Faisal Shahzad. Predictably a great many commentators in the press and on the non-stop talk shows that run on over 25 TV news channels have discussed whether it was a CIA plot to embarrass Pakistan or provide an excuse for American troops to invade us: Was Shahzad an Indian or Israeli agent? And in any case, why should Washington hold Pakistan responsible, since he was an American citizen?

Not surprisingly, the Zardari government, the army, and Pakistani politicians have also muddied the waters. Although the government has said it will fully cooperate with US investigators seeking to find out which extremist groups trained Shahzad and where, Islamabad continues to fudge the paramount issue—the need for Pakistan to launch a comprehensive campaign against all extremist groups rather than the hit-and-miss anti-terrorism measures it is presently pursuing. That selective campaign leaves untouched the Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan—including Mullah Omar and other top leaders—who are not killing Pakistanis but are organizing attacks against US troops in Afghanistan; it also has ignored the Punjabi Taliban groups who have been attacking Indian nationals and government buildings in Kashmir, Kabul, and elsewhere, as well as killing numerous Pakistanis in suicide bombings in Lahore and other cities.

Berlusconi’s New Rival?

Ingrid D. Rowland

Silvio Berlusconi
Alessandra Tarantino/AP Images

The Italians have a one-syllable word, an interjection, that means “I don’t know”: “Boh.” And “Boh” is probably the only credible commentary anyone can make right now about the country’s political situation. At the end of March, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà or “Freedom People” party swept regional elections nationwide, gaining control of four new regions (roughly equivalent to states in the US), including Campania (Naples), Lazio (Rome), and Piedmont (Turin), while holding on to Lombardy (Milan) and the Veneto. The opposition’s Democratic Party, forever split into squabbling groups, once again missed an opportunity (indeed there is no opportunity so far that they have not missed). Most of the contests were close, and turnout was unusually low by Italian standards.

Debating Nuclear Deterrence

A Symposium

In his NYRblog post last week, “Is Nuclear Deterrence Obsolete?” Jeremy Bernstein asked whether the principle of deterrence continues to provide a valid ground for maintaining a nuclear arsenal. Following are a series of responses from several of Bernstein’s correspondents who have studied nuclear weapons closely, together with a rejoinder by Bernstein. We invite readers to submit further comments of their own.

What Do Israelis Think of Obama?

Eyal Press

Sebastian Scheiner/AP Images

PRES OBAMA: SAVE ISRAEL FROM ITSELF.” So proclaimed a sign at a demonstration in late March in Sheik Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem where activists gather every Friday to protest the eviction of Palestinian residents from their homes. Among the demonstrators was the Israeli novelist David Grossman, with whom I struck up a conversation about Barack Obama, who is not generally regarded as a popular figure in Israel these days, not least because of his public call for a halt to Israeli settlement activity. Some news sources have put his approval rating among Israelis as low as 4 percent.

When the Antichrist Came to Orvieto

Ingrid D. Rowland

The Italian city of Orvieto, a little over an hour’s journey north of Rome, perches atop a massive, impregnable spur of volcanic rock, but that forbidding first impression dissipates quickly in the friendly, hospitable maze of its medieval streets. The city’s history goes back to Etruscan times, when it was called Velzna and managed an important religious sanctuary (recently rediscovered near the fairgrounds at the foot of what locals call “The Rock”); today Orvieto’s most conspicuous treasures are wine, ceramics, and art—and, of course, this being Italy, the food (a local pasta called umbrichelli, truffles, mushrooms, game). It is hard to imagine that so thoroughly beguiling a place was ever famous for anything but the bounty of its generous earth.

Groping in the Digital Dark

Wyatt Mason

A young Jean-Yves in Michel Gondry’s Thorn of the Heart

In early September of 1909, while on vacation in northern Italy, Franz Kafka attended an airshow in Brescia. It was the first time he had seen airplanes in flight. In an essay, “The Aeroplanes at Brescia,” he calls them “the machines.” When Louis Blériot—who had just become the first human to fly across the English Channel—takes his machine up into the Italian air, Kafka reports that, “Everyone gazes up at him enraptured, in no one’s heart is there room for anyone else.” Because this is, after all, Kafka, let’s call this the “Parable of the Machine”: as it enraptures, technology leaves us more alone.

I have been thinking of this parable in relation to the pace at which the film industry is loosing 3-D movies upon us.

Austria’s Hollow Center?

Timothy Snyder

In Austria’s presidential campaign this spring, a basic question underlying democratic politics in postwar Europe was made startlingly explicit: is recognition of the historical reality of the gas chambers a precondition for becoming head of state?