Are we at war? Is there a war going on somewhere out there? Now that the Taliban and bin Laden have become less and less of a real target, and more and more as an excuse for a fraudulent war (in the sense of Machiavelli), how can we think what is going on right now, at this moment? From the vintage point of a peaceful and decadent Europe --more specifically, Rome under the authority of a pariah like Berlusconi-- life goes on as normal, as if the tens of thousands that have been thus far displaced in Afghanistan are not even a concern for the media --most of it controlled by a corrupt Berlusconi, including the Internet service I'm using to login every day. We're already in our fourth week of Operation Enduring Freedom, and we're told that it might last much longer, maybe until the next summer, or maybe longer, like another year or two, until terrorism is brought down to its knees. We're also reminded that, despite the thousand plus sorties, the bombing is far below a Vietnam carpet style, so that many options are still left in case the Taliban do not surrender. But the problem is precisely that the Taliban are neither an army, nor a bureaucracy, nor a "regime" that controls a territory. It's a loosely knit militia based on kin groups, with an archaic and Wahhabi imposed moral code, and which has been successful in controlling most of Afghanistan in its post-Soviet era precisely because of its lack of ambition to modernize and control by means of a Soviet-style bureaucracy and apparatus.
The black-and-white video clips smell the victory of a self-esteemed little boys club: all the so-called smart-bombs have hit their targets, or so we're told, even though in Kabul the Red Cross warehouses have been already hit twice in the past week. Was this a mistake? Collateral damage? Or the outcome of a wary and faulty intelligence, which, in the Kosovo war had bombed the Chinese embassy even though it could have checked its address in the Belgrade yellow pages? They're thus supposed to present "us" with "evidence" that it all went as planned, and that the "enemy" has been targeted in the right place, and at the right moment. But does technology replace man? A question already posed by Machiavelli (and later by Heidegger) in his Discorsi five-hundred years ago: Does the horse as the new technological achievement of the Roman military replace what the infantry should and should not do in the first place?
Yet, those images have inundated our bedrooms and living rooms with complete boredom and indifference. Not only are those "clips" not telling us anything more, but they're lying. Fernand Braudel once noted that the sixteenth-century Mediterranean measured sixty days, which implied that news, mail, and commodities (including gold and silver) were slow to circulate, even though exact calculations of their transfer from one place to another signaled the early capitalism of the Italian city-states. A fundamental aspect of modern warfare is how fast can one lie, and how fast can the lie be reversed by one's opponent in the battlefield. The interesting thing about evidence (whether documentary or oral) is how much it suppresses, and how much it leaves aside: not only human casualties have no place in those clips, but even what's destroyed on the ground is arrogantly videotaped from a high angle. Military "experts" then tell us what we need to see --an undisguised success story.
We've now become familiar with the Northern Alliance (not to be confused with the much wealthier Italian Northern League), and its barefooted and poorly equipped and trained militias. Since the Taliban have severely restricted access to their territories to the small Arabic al-Jazira team (and which the Bush administration has attempted to censor), reporters have been endlessly courting the Shi'i Uzbek Northern Alliance. We're supposed to look for signs whether those fragmented and hopeless militias will ever be able to re-conquer and control Kabul --even though they've realistically leaned towards the more feasible Shi'i stronghold of Mazar-i Sharif in this past week. This time, the images come directly from the ground --face-to-face encounters-- instantaneously transmitted by means of portable parabolas (as the Italians call them), but they've regrettably become all too familiar as the "clips" from the sky. In all their haste to be "informative" about the Northern Alliance, they've become a daily annoyance that pops up on our little screens every night.
Then come, in a moderately third place, the refugees, the immigrants, the exiles, and all the displaced. Again, here, it's all scripted so as to make us indifferent in the comfort of our own bedrooms. Not that there's any conspiracy of any kind, but by taking for granted what "poverty" and "misery" are all about, the media ceases to be inquisitive in order to inquire about its object with questioning eyes (and cameras). Indeed, the displaced look like a "demonstration" --or "evidence"-- of American barbarism to some, or Taliban brutality to others. Who they really are does not matter.
Finally, last but not least, we've got the pro-Taliban fundamentalists of the Pakistani cities whose number seems to be growing by the hour. Cameramen and their reporters seem to be satisfied with the sight of burning cars, desecrated American flags, looted shops, and screaming mullahs. But then what? Again, the line of questioning seems so unilateral --Will there be a movement to destabilize the Pakistani military, and hence break the US-led alliance?-- that the images transmitted from the Pakistani cities fail to captivate us: we're only, in the final analysis, attempting to look for numbers behind those mobs, so that who they really are, their history and networks (including their links to the Pakistani military), do not represent questions of importance.
Those images, which cost billions to produce and transmit, hardly shake us, and they're not even informative. Even the good old BBC has lost its edge, and it's now up to a western-style Arab media like al-Jazira to "make" the war its own way. Yet, in all their indifference to emotion, those images have become for better or for worse an inseparable aspect of our households. In the same way that classroom education only generates indifference to knowledge and life in general, satellite-transmitted images hardly shake our beliefs. Indeed their purpose is to keep us as comfortable as we've always been, as if no war ever took place, and no one is suffering on the ground.
In other words, they fail to elucidate the process of questioning
through the image: How did Afghanistan become what it is today?
How come is it endlessly divided? And how come does the United
States feel so comfortable --for the fourth time in a decade--
to move freely to punish Iraq, then Somalia, then Kosovo, and
now Afghanistan, without knowledge, sympathy, or genuine interest
in those societies?