THOLOS OF ATHENA

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

THE PRAYING MANTIS


PHOTOGRAPH: Steven Pinker



"We're the good guys. We are Americans. We are
fighting a gentleman's war here--because we don't
behead people, we don't come down to the same
level of the people we're combating."

--Lieutenant Colonel Willy Buhl
(in advance of the 2nd battle of Fallujah)



The mantis turns to feed. Its bulbous head pivots efficiently, as another torn piece of viscera disappears in its mandibles.

The layers were peeled off America's face on November 2nd, 2004. By three percentage points the voters empowered a president who romanced evil with a twinkle in his eye, who had given consent to the torturer and to the admissibility of evidence derived from torture, and who laid down a path of revenge in Iraq that continued to embrace collective punishment and the death of civilians. What is America now? The euphoria of certain forward-looking Democrats appears as misplaced as the religious glee of their fundamentalist adversaries. November 2nd does not signify a setback; it is a catastrophe. Something is poised to devour this country. And the posture of prayer is strange for an insect that eats other insects.

President Richard Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger were directly responsible for the military coup that toppled the elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende. Allende was killed in his presidential palace, defending the office he had legitimately won. The White House used the bank accounts of an American corporation to funnel money into Chile to aid the conspiracy. The coup in 1973 did far worse than destroy that country's democracy, it unleashed a wave of murderous hysteria against Chile's leftists, intellectuals and artists.

It is nothing less than mockery for an American Lt. Colonel to hold forth for a gentleman's war in Iraq. There was no gentleman's war by US troops in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, when the natives fought for independence. There was no gentleman's war in Vietnam either. No respect for civilian life in Panama when Noriega was grabbed. The revisionists would like to remove such unpleasant memory from our collective consciousness. No one must look at the ditch where trembling elders, children and women lay down in Vietnam. One mustn't see the flailing limbs and spray of blood, as Lt. Calley and his men shoot them all. Fallujah is nothing new, is it?

Time is deceptive. "Even though Americans have repeatedly denied that their strikes have killed civilians, Iraqi employees of the New York Times have gone to the sites of some of the airstrikes"..."and have seen the bodies of women and children pulled from the rubble." (Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, NYT,10/12/04)

Journalist Naomi Klein points to the underlying criminality:
"Impunity - the perception of being outside the law - has long been the hallmark of the Bush regime"..."US forces and their Iraqi surrogates are no longer bothering to conceal attacks on civilian targets and are openly eliminating anyone - doctors, clerics, journalists - who dares to count the bodies."


Klein reminds her readers that the Americans and their local surrogates really have two wars underway in Iraq: a war that takes an appalling toll of civilians, and yet another war that is waged on the witnesses. (open letter)

Time is deceptive and Americans are no longer welcome in Iraq.

"Are you with me, or are you against me?" This is a significant line from The Praying Mantis, by Chilean playwright, Alejandro Sieveking. It brings to mind that bellicose pronouncement by George W. Bush, "You're either with us or you're with the Terrorists."

The drama concerns three sisters (two of them widows whose husbands have died under mysterious circumstances) living in a house in a small coastal town, with a grizzled and half-deranged father and another sister who is kept in her room, out of sight, a perpetual mystery who screams on occasion, or sings in low seductive tones, beckoning like a siren. A callow young man enters this charged atmosphere, as a suitor to the youngest and most ambitious sister. The audience begins to sense that the poor young guy is never getting out of the house alive; and the only unresolved question is the actual mechanism of his destruction.


A medieval nightmare descended on Chile under General Augusto Pinochet, complete with piety, torture and disappearances. Nixon and Kissinger had served up another kind of 9/11 to Chile: September 11, 1973, when the coup that decapitated a freely-elected government set the stage for 17 years of dictatorship.The playwright disguised his message in the form of allegory, since having open opinions at that time was dangerous to one's health. There is a requiem in it as well, dedicated to those who perished in the predator's grip.

Rob Bosquez, an actor who also staged Sieveking's play in Texas recently, provided his audience with this background in his Director's Notes:
"Thousands of citizens who spoke out against the regime including Chile's finest poets, actors, and intellectuals were rounded up in Santiago's national stadium. Here they were tortured, brutalized and slaughtered. One of Chile's best known singers and guitar players, Victor Jara was kidnapped and brought there. In a bloody display of the new power, in the country that was the homeland of Pablo Neruda, the hands that composed some of Chile's most beautiful melodies, were hacked off with machetes in a symbolic act before a crowd of thousands who were soon executed as well.

Conservative estimates put the initial death toll of the Santiago stadium killings at around 4,000."



The Intermission is over and the audience comes back for the Second Act. The grizzled wreck of a father, unseen until now, comes stumbling down the stairs. He complains about the superficiality of the three daughters: each of them trying to seduce the young man, presently in their clutches. The old man seems somehow repulsed, and reproaches them as having been conceived only in lust, or "sport". The audience learns for the first time that the other daughter, who is treated like an animal in a darkened room, like a deformed creature, is the only child the father considers beautiful. He rages at the other three daughters; he even holds them at bay with a pistol, and he wants nothing more than to leave the claustrophobic house for good.

But these sisters are long-practiced in humoring and delaying the old retrobate. When he comes back downstairs, lugging a suitcase, the clock on the wall says 10. They beguile him into protracted explanations and goodbyes, and before he knows it he turns around and finds 2 hours gone in the blink of an eye. He has missed his boat. The poor old soul is guided toward the stairs and back to his room.

"Time is deceptive", he is told, by his most meticulous and logical child.


"Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that his justice cannot sleep forever", said Thomas Jefferson. His personal anguish, his acquiescence over slavery, did not blind him to the tragic incompatibility between that crime and his country's professed liberties.

Where does America's history resonate in 2004? Are we back in the polarized 60s, with an immoral war and the FBI and CIA engaged in domestic spying? Are we back in the early 1950s?--looking for a new "Joe McCarthy" with fear-mongering and guilt by association, complete with blacklists? --no-flee lists?--seizures of passports? Or will we go all the way back to the Palmer Raids?--the Red Scare?--to Woodrow Wilson and the Espionage Act?--to a time when the Justice Department imprisoned thousands for political reasons and even put a great man like Eugene Debs in jail?

And it is impossible to dismiss these fears. That which is most dear to civilization is coming close to house arrest. What is most beautiful is being pushed behind the door. We have seen this happening in America since 2000. Creativity, with all its untidy energy, and dissent have been pushed behind the door. Tolerance and science are being treated like deformed creatures and are increasingly reviled in the name of religious bigotry. Who is next on Bush's no-fly list? Who will be stripped of their citizenship under Patriot Act II? Authenticity, intellect , empathy will soon be behind the door, described as loathsome creatures. We needn't bother looking around for the clock, either.

Time, after all, is deceptive. And the praying mantis is hungry.

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