Jonathan Franzen could hardly be more loudly American, and to come to him right after Peter Stamm is to see how different are the roads to celebrity for the Swiss author and the American. While Stamm’s characters come free, or bereft, of any social or political context, Franzen’s often seem barely distinguishable from a dense background cluttered with product names, detailed history and geography, linguistic tics, dress habits, and so on, all described with a mixture of irony and disdain, an assumption of superiority and distance.
In The English Constitution (1867), Walter Bagehot, who understood the irrational, atavistic mystique of the British monarchy better than any commentator before or since, wrote that a royal wedding is “the brilliant edition of a universal fact.” Thus the marriage ceremonial of Prince William of Wales and Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey on April 29 captured the attention of hundreds of millions of adepts of electronic media worldwide, who followed the proceedings to a lesser degree than expected on television but availed themselves of live streaming, Twitter, and other social networking sites to an unprecedented extent. Emblematic of that shift in viewing habits was the wedding’s instant Web star, the so-called Frowning Flower Girl. Following the church service, a three-year-old attendant stole the royal show on the Buckingham Palace balcony during the happy couple’s long-awaited kiss.
News cameras may zoom lustily into Middle Eastern crowds that vow vengeance. Pundits can cleverly parse the praise for a fallen warrior voiced by the usual Islamist hotheads. Cooler analysts will fret over the uses of assassination as a tool of policy, or over the finer points of Muslim doctrine regarding burial at sea. Yet for the most part the demise of the world’s most wanted man has been met, across the Arab and Muslim worlds, with a very untelegenic shrug of indifference.
We do not hear much about the Navy Seals, and with good reason. They are a secret set of special operatives. They are in the news now for their spectacular against-the-odds raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But they have been in the news before, and what they did then was also spectacular.
We give billions in aid to Pakistan’s military and civilian government. Yet Pakistan is harboring our enemies and even the enemies, one could argue, of its own healthy survival. Portions of our money are being funneled into the variety of insurgent networks whose fighters are killing American soldiers, Afghan soldiers, American civilians, Afghan civilians, European civilians, Pakistani civilians—mothers, fathers, children on multiple continents. Why, asks a US army major, did all his friends die in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province when the real problem is on the other side of the border? Why, asks a twelve-year-old Afghan girl in Kandahar whose family has been wiped out by US air strikes, are you bombing us? How has this come to pass?
Abbottabad was, from its founding, an important military cantonment where the British stationed part of their Nepalese Ghurka force. Like other Indian hill towns such as Darjeeling, it acquired a British flavor which it still had when I visited it in the fall of 1969.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a new documentary by Werner Herzog, is a striking and characterful work of art, framing another that is wholly extraordinary.
For three decades Osama bin Laden, the tall, shy, lanky, but mesmerizing Saudi, has gripped the imagination of tens of thousands of Muslims and became the bane of the world’s armies and intelligence agencies. Now he has been killed in a US commando raid on his safe house thirty miles from Islamabad, ten years after he carried out the worst attack ever suffered by the United States and the worst terrorist atrocity in human history. His ideology of global jihad and his acts of terrorism changed the way we all live, our security concerns, and how we conduct politics and business while deeply scarring relations between the Muslim world and the West; his death will have similarly large-scale effects. Many of the security challenges we now face will be more subtle and intricate than the threats posed by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in the past.
Of all the ceremonies staged for the beatification of John Paul II on May 1—the Vatican’s official admission of him into the ranks of the blessed and a crucial step on the path toward sainthood—there may have been none more moving than a Lord’s Prayer sung in Syro-Armenian chant by a Syrian countertenor (Razek François Bitar) in the cavernous Baroque church of Santa Maria in Campitelli. He sang in Aramaic, raising the most ancient of all Christian prayers in the same language that Jesus spoke. His ancestors could have been singing the same prayer nearly two thousand years ago, as could the first Christians in Rome, transplanted from Judaea. There were other sublime moments Sunday afternoon: Palestrina’s searing Stabat Mater, and Handel’s Dixit Dominus, as opulent as its gilded setting in Saint Peter’s. But nothing could surpass the beauty of a single reverent voice.
Across Syria, checkpoints in protest areas have been set up to search people for mobile phone pictures and footage of the violence. Telephone and Internet networks have been cut, and few people have been able to leave or contact the outside world. There are reports of government snipers firing on pedestrians, and residents no longer dare leave their homes. Foreign journalists, who in recent weeks have been harassed and dissuaded from pursuing their stories (and in a few cases arrested and beaten), have now been expelled. The dearth of information has raised questions about who is involved in the protests and what prospects they might have—in the face of such repression—to bring about a broader change. While it has been increasingly difficult to get a full picture of the towns and cities where the government has responded with force, some insights can be gained from the situation in Douma, a Damascus suburb and flash point in the protests, where I was able to visit shortly before the most recent violence.