The shadow threat

We’ve been in Afghanistan now for almost 10 years. Think about that for a second. Is anyone else sobered by the reality that American troops have been on the ground in that country long enough for a generation of kids to make it to the fifth grade?

We’ve been in Afghanistan now for almost 10 years. Think about that for a second. Is anyone else sobered by the reality that American troops have been on the ground in that country long enough for a generation of kids to make it to the fifth grade? For some of us studying here at PSU, we’ve been involved in this war for a larger portion of our lives than we’ve been at peace. I’m not making some sort of political judgment, here. But this observation gives me the chills.

This is a discussion about al-Qaida, not the Taliban. Yes, there is a difference. Al-Qaida is an international terrorist network, predominantly led by Saudi Arabs, under the ultimate aegis of Osama bin Ladin. The Taliban is a domestic Islamic fundamentalist group in Afghanistan, having held power in the country since 1996, primarily comprised of Pashtun (Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group) tribal leaders, under the ultimate leadership—and this is debatable—of mullah Muhammad Omar.

Al-Qaida is the organization that plotted, organized and executed 9/11. The Taliban, not involved with the attacks themselves, became an enemy of the United States with the refusal to peacefully release al-Qaida leaders at the behest of the American government in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Having been ousted by American forces in 2001, lingering constituencies of the Taliban continue to hamper U.S. efforts in the region, and comprise the majority of insurgent activities in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, as a whole, remains at large.

So why all the fuss? Retribution and justice aside, why do we make such a big deal about al-Qaida? Why all the money? Why all the troops? Just how dangerous are these reclusive, fundamentalist bad guys, with a concept of Islam as crooked as their grasp of history? What sort of threat do they pose to the world’s most preeminent superpower?

The analytical method of assessing military capability reduces al-Qaida into four basic qualities, all of which are crucial to the effective implementation of violence (this is the world we live in—get used to it) in the pursuit of political aim.

First, there is the consideration is manpower. What is the size of the force in question? No one really knows how big al-Qaida is, owing partly to the obviously reclusive nature of the organization, and partly to the undefined criteria of membership. According to the U.S. State Department in 2008 and the Council on Foreign Relation, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank, the number ranges anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand.

Economic base and financial support is another consideration. You can’t have a war without the money to support it. The 9/11 commission report puts annual costs of operation for al-Qaida at an austere $30 million. Putting this into a little context, PSU’s endowment is somewhere in the neighborhood of $28 million.

Al-Qaida predominantly funds itself through corrupt funneling of compulsory Islamic charity (zakat) and a number of financial facilitators around the Gulf Coast. The system is not reliable, and has weakened with the international crackdown on al-Qaida supporters. Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that Saudi Arabia has ever financially supported al-Qaida, nor that Osama himself personally funds operations through his own assets or monetary holdings. Funding of al-Qaida has plummeted since 2001.

Then there is strength/efficacy of leadership. This is also troubling to determine. For one thing, al-Qaida’s leadership is decentralized, and, after several years of American forces whittling away much of al-Qaida’s original leaders, it is unknown just how much authority this central leadership realistically exercises. Disregarding the apparent lack of organization, Osama bin Ladin is an engineer—not a philosopher, not a strategist, and, by all accounts, a horrendous marksman. The same goes for most of his immediate deputies.

Putting it bluntly—al-Qaida is led not by a hierarchy of experienced, strategically savvy military officers, but by a gaggle of pissed-off thugs with too much sense of purpose, and too little brainpower.

We must also consider the quality of soldiers. Need I say more? Al-Qaida has no soldiers to speak of—it implements its force through murder, scare tactics and what ultimately amounts to international vandalism. You’ve seen the news. Remember the underwear bomber? The schmuck that tried to blow up Times Square? The mail-bomb plot of a few months back? The track record of al-Qaida operatives is dismal.

Taking all this into consideration, this much can be concluded about al-Qaida: Tactically, you couldn’t ask for a worse enemy. The asymmetrical warfare adopted by the insurgencies of Iraq and Afghanistan, some of whom are indeed legitimate constituents of the al-Qaida philosophy, is a headache to U.S. military tacticians.

Just ask a returning service member, or Netflix yourself a copy of “The Hurt Locker” (horribly inaccurate regarding military procedure, but it gets the tone right). It need not be said again that the task of making war with a nameless, faceless, senseless foe is a muddled, frustrating and thankless process.

However, I’d like to cheerfully stick my neck—and credibility—over the butcher’s block by making an observation, which to my knowledge, does not make many headlines. Strategically, we couldn’t ask for a better enemy. What I’m about to say is callous to the suffering of thousands, and cold to the survivors of the dead. But war is a nasty business, and has little tolerance for the niceties of human advancement.

Strategically, al-Qaida is nothing to us. After 10 long years of conflict, al-Qaida has failed to destroy the U.S. economy. Our support for Israel is undiminished. Our presence in the Islamic countries is greater than ever. Realistically, at no time has al-Qaida posed an existential threat to the United States or its allies. Every day that passes reveals Osama bin Ladin as less of an ideological, Muslim champion of the oppressed, but more of a criminal, a coward, a deceptive bastardizer of a proud and benign faith.

Military history does not side with this kind of a leader. ?

The art of listening

IPRC’s marathon reading of “Moby Dick”

Most of us—if we were lucky—were read to as children, by parents or grandparents sitting at our bedsides, lulling us into a slumber with tales of heroism or fantasy or, at the least, talking animals. As adults, we aren’t often offered the indulgent opportunity to listen to literature. Our lives are so fast-paced, many don’t even take or have the time to read, much less slow down and be read to. Audio books lack the atmosphere of a real person’s voice, and most people utilize them while multitasking—driving or treading on the elliptical. It’s rare that we give ourselves the chance to slow down and take it all in.

This Friday, that window of opportunity will open when Powell’s Books and the Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC) host Take to the Ship: Portland’s first marathon reading of Herman Melville’s classic novel “Moby Dick.” This year marks the 160th anniversary of the novel’s release in 1851. A total of 135 readers from the literary community have volunteered to participate, each reading a chapter from the novel over the course of 24 hours. The first five hours are open to the public and will take place in Powell’s reading room. The rest of the event will then relocate to a yet-to-be-announced location open to members of the IPRC. The reading will be recorded in its entirety and eventually be available for sale to raise funds for the IPRC.

The “Moby Dick” marathon reading is new to Portland but part of a well-established tradition. In 1982, the Seaport Museum in New York hosted perhaps the first documented reading of the novel. Local actors read to fans and enthusiasts over the course of six Sunday afternoons at the museum, which sits just a few blocks from Melville’s birthplace.

More notably, Massachusetts’ New Bedford Whaling Museum has been hosting a marathon reading of the novel for 15 years, in celebration of Melville’s 1841 departure from the city on the whaling ship Acushnet. The event is an annual weekend-long affair, including dinner, public lectures, art exhibits and interactive encounters with the Melville Society—a scholarly organization dedicated to the celebrated author.

The Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut will be hosting a reading of the novel this summer to celebrate Melville’s birthday. Their reading will take place aboard the Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaling ship in the world.

Marathon readings of “Moby Dick” have become somewhat of a literary institution, perhaps second only to marathon readings of Homer’s “Odyssey,” which occur regularly around the globe.

While the recurring readings on the east coast have clear geographical ties to Melville’s life and work, the Portland reading speaks more to our city’s rich and dynamic literary and arts community. Along with the upcoming reading, the IPRC is hosting a “Moby Dick”-inspired art show in its gallery, featuring a slew of local artists who have contributed works influenced by the famous whale.

The history of the novel also ties in to the IPRC’s dedication to their cause. Organizer Amy Harwood brings up an important point: “When Moby Dick was first published, it was a flop. Without small press publishing, this great work ahead of its time may never have made to our laps.”

While the museum readings focus primarily on tributes to whaling and Melville, the Portland reading takes it to the next level by truly celebrating the novel’s importance to the literary community.

This reading is a unique opportunity to experience the novel in a new way, or perhaps experience it for the first time. The event promises to commemorate a celebrated author, a classic American novel, a vibrant literary community and the underappreciated experience of winding down to the sound of someone reading aloud from a great book.?

Strange Werther

Art imitating art imitating life from Opera Theater Oregon

Fans of opera and classic Hollywood melodrama could find themselves in a paradoxical situation this Valentine’s Day. Beginning Feb. 11, Opera Theater Oregon will be presenting a mixed media adaptation of Jules Massenet’s classic opera “Werther.” “Out of Eden” will be staged at the Alberta Rose Theater and features a combination of live and video performances, with accompaniment from a 15-piece orchestra.

What the performance lacks in appeal for opera purists, it makes up for with fans of Douglas Sirk’s classic Technicolor melodramas of the 1950s. Films such as “All That Heaven Allows,” and “Imitation of Live & Tarnished Angels” were themselves heavily influenced by classic opera and the themes common to the medium. “Werther” itself would require little more than a Technicolor palette for such transfiguration, but this production, staged with significant funding from the Portland State University School of Music, has far greater ambitions.

Transmuted from the original French is an English language adaptation, the tale of an American soldier leaving the Korean War and finding the open arms of a fallen soldier’s girlfriend. The script takes a decidedly operatic turn, however, when the rumors of the soldier’s death turn out to have been somewhat exaggerated. The script was adapted by Katie Taylor, taking significant liberties with Massenet’s original story.

“I’ve always found it very hard to pity Werther,” said Taylor of the story’s main character. “He descends vampire-like on this woman’s clean, untroubled life and completely wrecks it, feeling nothing but sorry for himself.”

When Taylor realized that the music would not support dramatic shifts to Werther’s character, she opted instead to shift the focus of the tragedy. It’s a risky move that isn’t supported by Sirk or Massenet’s historical reference points on tragedy, but it is certainly in keeping with director Todd Haynes’s homage to Douglas Sirk’s film. 2002’s “Far From Heaven” was Haynes’slove letter to Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows.”

The Opera Theater Oregon staging invol-ves live actors and orchestration, along with video projections created especially for the production. Through the videos, characters share their memories, dreams and even their perspective as they peek through a window. These aspects will be key in recreating a mood that is truly referential, as the classic melodramas of the 1950s relied heavily on emotional tension drawn out through the use of flashbacks, extended close-ups and longing gazes that test the modern attention span.

In addition to the stage production and video installation, Opera Theater Oregon is also producing a comic book with the help of artist Dan Schaefer, who has worked with publishers D.C, Dark Horse and Marvel. The comic book is intended to aid the audience in following the story in a production that will run just over two hours in length, with one brief intermission.

“It’s an easy way to help the audience get oriented to the story before the curtain rises,” Taylor said. She added that OTO plans to do more of the comic book programs in the future, as a fun and interesting way to integrate even more media into the evening’s affairs.

“Out of Eden” is not only an orgy of media convergence, but also an interesting example of the meta-mimetic nature of post-modern performance. With Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” as Taylor’s professed starting point, “Out of Eden” will be a multimedia adaptation of a film referencing films that in turn were influenced by operas precisely like the one being adapted here.

The comic book may come in handy. ?