Has Al-Qaida Been Reinvigorated?

In the lead story in today’s New York Times, senior terrorism correspondent Eric Schmitt — who recently wished me luck with my 9/11-launched novel “Hell City” — writes:

The attack on the United States mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens has set off a new debate here and across the Middle East about whether Al Qaeda has been reinvigorated amid the chaos of the Arab Spring or instead merely lives on as a kind of useful boogeyman, scapegoat or foil.

There’s a great debate going on in Washington and the Middle East over whether al-Qaida (I use the AP-style spelling) is operational or whether newer insurgent groups are simply deploying its terrifying brand. That’s kind of where the term al-Qaida 2.0 comes from.

One thing is certain: there is no shortage of entrenched, sophisticated insurgent groups, the Haqqani clan in the Af-Pak region being one of the most dangerous. They have been responsible for most of the attacks on embassies in the region and many attacks on our troupes. It’s possible they are behind the recent deadly bombing in Kabul, another protestation over the Youtube-posted film under the name of “Innocence of Muslims,” although so far a branch of the insurgent group Hezb-i-Islami has claimed responsibility.

Consider this: it was the Kabul bombing, taken together with the other attacks across some 40 cities in the Middle East and North Africa, that led the U.S-led coalition to curtail operations with Afghan security forces, the very core of what remains of our mission in Afghanistan. Talk about decimation. Man, what do we have left?

Image

So, the idea that organized, sophisticated insurgency, jihad, has somehow been defanged in the Middle East and beyond is simply nuts. The entire region is on fire and is coming apart at the seams.

Which brings me to the plot of “Hell City.” As the protagonist, counterterrorism commander Jack Oldham, believes: “Al-Qaida isn’t dead — yet!” What Jack believes is that we can’t go to sleep on the “new gen” al-Qaida as he and his comrades call it, which is why they track American-born insurgents and their connections to various groups in Af-Pak and Yemen. Among them, by the way, is a fictionalized version of the Haqqani tribe. Can the reconstituted Qaida pull off another “big one” in New York? Well, that’s what reading (click for Kindle page) is all about.

Bye Neil, and Thanks

Seems like we’re more consumed with headshots — a la gunmen gone postal — these days, but mid-20th century it was moon shots. Actually meant something back then. The NASA rover Curiosity is bombing around Mars at the moment — unmanned, of course. But the country is more consumed with cat vids. Whatever happened to dreaming? Big ideas? Big steps?

One small step

Certainly, Neil Armstrong knew something about big steps. The iconic astronaut passed away Saturday at the age of 82. I have my own memories of that fateful day, framed by the surreal counterpoints of the times. Following is an excerpt from a post commemorating the 40th anniversary of that moon landing.

I was in a second-rate hotel in Eureka, California the day the Apollo 11 crew landed. I was with my own merry band of pranksters on a cross-country trip in my 1948 Cadillac hearse. As we descended into the hotel lobby, Walter Cronkite’s voice crackled from a TV, saying something like, “What a great county…I just don’t understand these hippies…” The TV was a table model that sat on a broken Sylvania console. Behind these proceedings, a derelict American Indian lumbered along the street in the hot California sun. What an ironic scene. Could have been out of an Antonioni film.

P.S. Okay, so was originally thinking of heading this post with some play on “the Eagle has landed.” Didn’t. Then, the next morning, while shaving, I looked out my bathroom window to see a magnificent bald eagle wheel across my front lawn, lighting in a big oak. How’s that for synchronicity?

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The Hot Ride

A heat bomb hit me when I slid into my Chevy today, a welcome rapture after an icy winter in upstate New York. It took me right back to the tireless Nash that was heaped among the weeds in my boyhood, nested among toads and copperheads in a bungalow colony in Peekskill.

A James Deanish boy named Leif was my summer partner in crime. He was the true grit country boy, I, the city kid learning the ropes. We were just short of teenage, and that mechanical skeleton was our rocket to the moon.

We sat in the stultifying July sun, hornets circling; our souls exulted from the dusty upholstery scents as we took turns behind the hot steering wheel, the battered speedometer feeding our imaginations. The cracked and crazed sheet metal became a time machine, taking us on far journeys through states that were as yet unknown. Our young hearts baked and burned. Turn after turn, we explored, escaped as if mapping out the rest of our lives.

I have no idea what happened to Leif after that summer. Year after year, my own soul baked on: in my father’s Studebaker, Dodge; in my first car, a 1948 Cadillac hearse. That black monolith took me to California and back twice, tracing every road I had imagined in that magical Nash.

It persists. I’ve since traveled the back roads of most states. My wife, Roxanne and I continue the journey every chance we get: Cross Creek, Savannah, New Orleans, Pueblo, Greensboro, Kansas City, Barstow, Staunton, Albuquerque. Somehow, it’s always just beginning, when the sun enwraps you behind the wheel.

America is in my blood, my bones, as evinced in my writing. Check out this raw reality in the video to my song “Miss America.”
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Catcher 22: Holden Caulfield Today

“The Catcher in the Rye” was as singular a novel as the voice of J.D. Salinger, who passed away on Thursday. To my generation – The Who, Woodstock and all that – it was the bible for the disaffected, misunderstood teenager, who was ready to flip from Peter Pan.

Of course, the flipping continued. After high school, there were new discoveries on the road, so to speak, to self-discovery: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Hemingway, Dylan, the Beatles, the Williamses (Tennessee and Hank), the Millers (Henry and Arthur), Lorca.

But today’s youth don’t have time for such protracted processes. As Jennifer Schuessler put it, writing in the New York Times last June:

Today’s pop culture heroes, it seems, are the nerds who conquer the world — like Harry (Potter) — not the beautiful losers who reject it.

Some critics say that if Holden is less popular these days, the fault lies with our own impatience with the idea of a lifelong quest for identity and meaning that Holden represents.

Since the 1980s, I’ve been saddened by the fast-track trajectory of college students. Pressure to choose a gilded career flattened any chance for soul searching during its ideal developmental period. No doubt many college students in recent times have bounced from major to major, from career to career, and have fallen under the wheels of life a few times. Yet something still seems lost in today’s culture.

Nevertheless, I’m convinced there’s something inherent in human nature that seeks its own inquisitive level despite the “so now” pressures and distractions of the times. Our three-year-old grandson, Russell is as spoiled with store-bought toys as many, but I was heartened to see that his favorite play thing of late is an empty chewing-gum box — the best gift his pappy ever gave him.

The soul lives on.
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Dems ‘Double’ Up on Racism

It would be comical if it weren’t sad, the transparent rationalization of Senator Harry Reid’s comments on the complexion of Barack Obama, the candidate.

I understand the president’s acceptance of the senator’s apology and his need to bar the White House door against a political tempest. But trying to explain away Reid’s choice of words as “inartful” does nothing more than put a ribbon on a rat.

Many influential African Americans have gone on the record in defense of Reid: CNN Political Analyst Roland Martin, PBS Editor and Senior Correspondent Gwen Ifill and John L. Jackson, Jr., author of Racial Paranoia. Furthermore, liberals galore – and I’m no conservative — are smugging up the joint. Case in point, Frank Rich, who writes in his Sunday column:

For all the hyperventilation in cable news land, this supposed racial brawl didn’t seem to generate any controversy whatsoever in what is known as the real world.

I suppose the “real world” would be rationalization nation, which, to me, is populated by hypocritical apologists.

Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, you’re focusing on trees: there’s a forest out there in them thar words. Shall I parse their highly charged meaning?

I’ll take a crack at it. Essentially, by saying Obama would work as a presidential candidate because he was light skinned and didn’t talk like those negroes (I exaggerate here to make a point) is racist pure and simple. You don’t have to be a linguist to read between these lines and their attendant implications. Turn the phrase around, and here’s what Reid is really saying: “I’m sure glad he doesn’t look real dark and talk, you know, real Negro.” Another words, this guy isn’t like those real dark black people who scare the pants off us white boys.

Exaggeration? If so, by how much. It’s all code, man, and we’ve all been around enough to know it. High-minded parsing can’t explain it away.

It’s a Democratic double standard, pure and simple. Maybe that’s why I became an independent long ago.

And, by the way, happy birthday, Martin Luther King.
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Mr. President, You’re Flunking Crisis Management 101

Mr. President, you need to find a podium, and fast. Even college freshman in PR 101 know that major crises require transparency and truth, all from the mouth of the CEO, and pronto.

Sending Napolitano and Gibbs out on such a mission is a joke, plain and simple, and a recipe for PR, even political, disaster.

Napolitano on WABC-TV “This Week” this morning said some confounding things:

That Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was on some list, but there was nothing else to indicate he was a threat. Oh yeah, how about his distinguished banker father who weeks ago told U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria that his son may be in the process of a terrorist act against the U.S.

Defying logic again, she had the gall to say: “everybody did what they were supposed to,” and that the government practices for exactly this type of event. Oh yeah! Even the commentator, Jake Tapper, to his credit, reminded her that the only folks who did what they were supposed to were the regular folks on that flight and the crew.

Robert Gibbs also buried the obvious failures in bureaucrat-speak about the alphabet-soup methodology of lists (i.e.: Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, Terrorist Screening Data Base, “no-fly,” and “selectee”).

Mark my words, the ham-handed handling of this historic event on behalf of the administration will go down in PR-blunder history along with Bhopal and Exxon Valdez. This will serve as a textbook example for instructors of crisis management who will use it to point out everything not to do.

And PR aside, just wait till Leno and Letterman take to their respective podiums this week.
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“Robert Frank’s The Americans” at the Metropolitan

I just saw the exhibit “Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’” — centered on the photographer’s seminal book by the same name  — on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through Jan. 3.

Born in 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland, Frank took pictures in Europe and South America during his early career, but it wasn’t until he crisscrossed the seductive roads of America that Frank felt he was finally making art with his lens. With his U.S. travels in the mid-1950s, his work reached a new level, and 83 of his road images were arranged into the book “The Americans.”

It’s no surprised that Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to the first U.S. edition of “The Americans (1959).” It raised eyebrows in the media for its brute black and white candor. But “The Americans,” like Kerouac’s own masterwork, “On the Road,” opened the door to the loneness of the country’s heart and spirit and, together, they inspired a generation of artists, musicians and thinkers.

Robert Frank's "U.S. 91, leaving Blackfoot, Idaho"

It’s interesting how foreign image makers like Frank, Mechelangelo Antonioni (“Zabriskie Point,” 1970), Louis Malle (“Atlantic City,” 1980) are able to capture the essence of the land better than most native auteurs. In fact, with the stir made by “The Americans,” Frank was compared to America’s original outsider observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose 1835 book “Democracy in America” helped to define the young nation’s unique character (Is it what America brings to you or what you bring to her?).

I believe a great artist is a conduit for “place.” His subject somehow finds him, speaks through him. The artist ultimately “sees” through time as the French photographer Eugène Atget described it. I believe such artists also see through other dimensions, some of which elude us, some of which speak through intersections of light and shadow, artifact and art, quietude and cacophony, moment and mystery.

It’s hard to describe “The Americans.” Language could illuminate it, could degrade it. Perhaps it’s like the stuff of dreams, the magic of which begins to disappear upon transfer to the conscious mind. So much spills from the bucket on its ascent from that deep, dark well.

But I try. Actually, I thought poetry might somehow have a special access pass to the world within photography. So I offer up the following images from my forthcoming chapbook “America, I’ll Have My Way With You”:

I MISS YOU ALREADY AMERICA

I miss you already America
and you’re not even gone

leave me your messages
by the grimed phone booth
how you joke of the truth
hat tossed to eternity
leave me your hay bales
in the sweat hum of the field
waiting on farm hands
and wayward girls
leave me your Ford grillwork
idle at the company house
preaching at the two lane

leave me your truck’s whine
at the crossroads
singing that heaven
is elsewhere in the night
leave me your green trailer
singular at the corner
monument to guts
leave me your shag heart
dusting the television night
with boredom and blood

You might view the video of my song “Miss America,” too.

I was surprised and pleased to see Frank himself link the worlds of photography and poetry in his description of his work:

When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.

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