O, pipe the hymn both clear and loud:
  "Come soon, thou golden dream!"
The altar sends the incense up --
  Though flesh-smoke feed the stream -
"Come quick, thou light, both clean and bright!"
  Though born a crimson gleam.
O pipe it loud! Drown out the sounds
  Of the sacrifice's scream.
Bleed out thy scream, O sacrifice,
  Thou destined cinder-grey!
The crisp of thee in sinuous stream,
  The gleam 'neath an empty vein,
The elegy of a Silver Dream,
  Keened out in Bean-sidhe lay:
Bleed out, and silence thou become -
  Now comes the break of day!

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The Problem I Had With "Plain Kate"

This morning, I finished reading 'Plain Kate' by Erin Bow, a book that Amanda assigned me for our Lovebirds Challenge, and it has been gnawing me since. I'm very glad I read it, because something about it is bothering me.

Understand, first, it was not a book. It was a pretty good one in fact. There was a few moments that lifted me out of the flow of the story in awkward ways, but not very many, and I'm oversensitive to that, and tend to demand that books be written especially for me, in some ways, especially modern ones. And aside from that, it was a well written book, tightly fairy-taled, in a way that is neither cloying or anachronistic (the two ways I usually find that fairy tales find their downfalls).

But, there was something about it that bothered me. (mild spoiler, I'll avoid the big ones). There is this cat, the main character's cat, who at one point gains the powers of speech, and becomes sort of mentally part human, because it's Kate's greatest wish - that she have a travelling companion. A friend, more succinctly.

Now, first of all, I found it a bit irritating that not 10 pages past this point, where she had been a lone and friendless the whole book, she suddenly falls in with some people with whom she starts to develop friendships. But that's neither here nor there, and only bothered me because it seems like it should have been dramatically ironic and wasn't.

What bothered me was this: her love and friendship with the cat is one of the emotional engines of the book. And yet, the cat isn't real. He is only the way he is, because she wished him to be so. He does not awaken and learn to like her, or grow from the feelings a cat would have to a master to the feelings a friend would develop for a friend, to the point of self-sacrifice. He is simply made, immediately, the Perfect Friend. This is realistic - it's what she wished for, after all, not just a talking cat, but a perfect friend, to stay with her when things become difficult.

The problem with making someone a perfect friend is the same problem, though, that love potions have: they aren't real. Or if they are real, then love and friendship are, after all, meaningless. I was talking to Amanda this morning, and made an analogy: I'm a computer programmer. So, what if I learned how to program emotions into a robot? And what if I programmed a robot, whose main directive was to love me, to be loyal to me, to care about me? I don't mean, to be a slave, just to be - a perfect friend. If I programmed this robot to be that way, would it REALLY be love? What would the feelign I felt back be? In a sense, Kate's cat isn't it's own being at all - it's just a piece of Kate. Her wish, embedded into another living thing through no will of that other thing's.

But then, what difference does that make, really? At some level, after all, all love is a complex of neurons and memories, right? An instinct. We love, because we have evolved into lovers, because love has proven to be the best way to survive. I'm not a snob about this idea, I don't think that's demeaning to the human spirit, or anyhting, that it makes us less. But, it does beg the question - if I put you to sleep, and then constructed love in your brain, when you awoke, would that love be less real than a love that developed on it's own? In a sense, it's almost like cloning - most of us have a gut level reaction of unnaturalness, when we consider the idea of producing a child without the natural process of human inter-fertilization, apart from any of the moral qualms surrounding how the technology might be used we don't like the idea of the technology, of itself. But why? If an identical child is produced one way versus another, is ther eREALLY a difference? Or isn't there? Mental Illness is another example - if someone is mentally ill, than some of their emotions are not the byproducts of the normal activity of their mind, but rather they are symptoms of an external disease. If someone is furious only because they need medicine, are they any less furious? Does their fury 'matter less'?

I can have this whole argument, but you'll notice, I'm not convinced by it, and I simply don't know why. The idea of that cat being a produced instead of a natural friend truly bothers me. To produce consciousness, that DOESN'T bother me - I do not, for instnace, have the same gut level fear of the idea of artificial intelligence. But emotion does, and I can't quite pinpoint why. It draws into something bigger, something that has to do with the purpose of life itself - in the end, after all, the material effects of life are irrelevant, right? Things don't matter, at the end, its only, as so many people have said, the experiences we've had, the memories we've shared, the love we've given and recieved. What if we only feel that this love was given? Does that make a difference? If there were no way of knowing, if it could be given equitably, if we could make it so every human on earth could receive the gift of memories and emotions, and if we could irrefutbaly show that this, in the end, would let every person mentally have lived the life they wish they could have lived, would that be wrong? And if it IS wrong, why? Is it simply because its unnatural? Is it because we would be foolish with it, and create lives that don't have any regret in them? Is it because it would be selfish, removing the reality of anything done for someone else? It's something else, something, because even if it were possible to remove all these things, it would be wrong. I do not want to be loved, I want to... have lived a love. And the idea of simple accepting the validity of the other option really bothered me.

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Hannibal Bin Laden

Sometime between the years 181 and 183 BC, in Libyssa (the city now known as Gebze on the entrance to the Black Sea), there was an old Greek palace. Libyssa was a city in the now long forgot kingdom of Bithynia (interesting, also, in the later life of Mithridates, another fascinating character), which at that time, was wrapping up a long war with the nearby kingdom of Pergamum, an ally of the Roman Empire. The war was a difficult one, and in those days, for most countries, there was no standing army of any substance, so for professional soldiers, the king, Prusias, had turned for help to mercenaries, including a man who, though in the winter of his life, was without a doubt then (and in many ways still today) the most famous military leader of all time - Hannibal Barca, the general of the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War.

Most people know Hannibal for his famous march through the Alps on the backs of his famous war elephants, or perhaps know the famous phrase "Hannibal at the Gates!", meaning that danger is imminent. During his life, Hannibal was, by most Romans, the most terrifying man alive. After marching through the Alps, Hannibal proceeded to spend 16 years marching up and down the length of Italy, turning most of Rome's allies in the region to their side, and systematically beating the Romans over and over - the historical records (which several of Rome's greatest historians kept) seem unanimous: Rome was, quite simply, incapable of winning a battle against Hannibal. And Hannibal's victories were not simply crushing feats of superior manpower. In the most scathing battle, Hannibal marched into the field of Cannae, near Rome, with 50000 soldiers, against a force of 86000 Romans. Hannibals group was a ragtag mixture of a wide swath of different Celtic tribes, and a core force of Carthaginians far away from their homeland. The Romans were close to their own city, defending their families and livelihoods from what was, truly, a mortal threat. At the end of the day, about 6000 Carthaginians were dead, as opposed to 50000 Romans. And additional 5000 were captured. To put that in perspective, literally 1/5th of the male population of Rome had died, in a single battle, on a single field, on a single day. The number is large enough, for me, to really have no meaning: think of it this way - the Roman's losses on that single day, were nearly equivalent to the death count of the US Army through the entire Vietnam War. And this in a nation whose native population was about half that of the Omaha metropolitan area.

Beyond this, Hannibal's tactics were, in and of themselves, completely foreign to the Romans. The Romans learned their tactics from the Greeks, in large part, who fought, essentially, like a football line: a long row of soldiers, perhaps 10 deep, lines up in straight rows, and marches forward to smash against the other army. Hannibal did not - Hannibal took part in what we now call 'unconventional warfare'. Caught in a narrow valley at night, for instance, with Romans surrounding him on most sides, Hannibal took a herd of cattle, and lit their tails on fair, then pointed them (as much as one can point a herd of burning cattle) toward one of the passes out of the valley. The Romans, watching from the outskirts, suddenly saw a mass of fires running toward one of the exits, and of course, assumed this was the torches of Hannibal's army, trying to escape the valley, so they naturally moved their forces to block the exit the cows were approaching. Hannibal left via the other exit, now left wide open.

The Romans hatred for the Carthaginians had many roots, of course. One was the materialistic one: Carthage was a rival, with interests in Sicily, which is awfully close to Rome. This is, without a doubt, the reason the wars were fought. Aside from this, though, one of the interesting threads of the real antipathy the Romans felt for the Carthaginians was cultural and religious. The religious of the Carthaginians, to the Roman mind, was primitive, barbaric and cruel. In many ways, we would probably think of it the same way today: the Carthaginians, most infamously, would sacrifice their own children on their altars, a fact that was considered a fable made up by the Romans to demonize their enemies for a long time, but now largely confirmed by considerable archaeological evidence. And beyond this, by the time of Hannibal, their was a considerable historical antipathy - the first Punic War had, particularly for the Barca family, created a situation where the Romans dominated the Carthaginians, making of them what was, if not in name then in reality, a colony, and a fairly cruelly taxed one at that. Hannibal, as a very young man, was taken to an altar (possibly where the child sacrifices were occurring, though opinons on this differ, I am led to understand), where he placed his hand on the altar, and his father had him swear an oath to hate and fight the Romans, for the rest of his life, on principle. In short, we tell the story of Hannibal now with sufficient historical distance that we can feel like both sides have their heroic moments. There is, I would say, even a tendency to like Hannibal more - he's the underdog, and the genius, people want to cheer for that. It's difficult for us, then, to reall completely internalize how quintessentially threatening Hannibal was at the time. Hannibal was the force of destruction and dissolution, a force that felt not simply like a war enemy, but a threat to the very culture of Rome at the time, the personification of the threatening other. And this perception was not, entirely unfair - given the choice,  Hannibal's history seems to suggest, Hannibal would have been quite happy to see Rome ended, razed to the ground, the earth salted (in much the way, ironically, that Carthage was treated at the end of the Third Punic War).

I don't think it's a stretch, then, to draw parallels between Hannibal and the Carthaginians to Rome, and Osama Bin Laden and the extremist Islamic fringe in groups like Al-Qaeda to the United States. In both situations, you have a group whose cultures seem to be predisposed to clash. The variety of Islam that the extremist fringe espouses (not Islam in general, just the variety) feels, I think, to many like an attack on the best parts of modern culture (whether this is true or not, or the relationship between the perception of this difference and the actuality is irrelevant to this topic, though an interesting question on it's own). In both cases, there is a certain horror in our culture of the tactics themselves, a sort of consciously irrational feeling that the other side is 'cheating'. Of course, that's silly to some extent. Terrorism, at least from my ability to define it, is entirely a function of one's point of view. But the feeling is strong - the feelings we have about terrorism are fairly easy to match up to the feelings Rome had about Hannibals method of warfare. The feelings we have about 9/11 - a strange mixture of horror and denial and blood fury and patriotic pride at our ability to survive it - are very similar to those the Romans had after Cannae. And in many ways, the attacks on Carthage that eventually led to Hannibal's defeat and exile, are much like America's war in Afghanistan.

Particularly this is true when it comes to the results, with Hannibal himself - the object of the attack on Carthage was to defeat Hannibal, yes, certainly, much like the American object in Afghanistan was to overthrow the Taliban, but beyond this, it was for many Romans, to catch Hannibal, to drag him back to Rome, to try him, and to kill him. To see justice done, on the one hand, and to remove the man who had become the definition of secret fear for Romans, on the other. Hannibals escape, and his subsequent career of acting as a mercenary for Rome's many enemies was a crushing, terrifying thing for the Romans. Hannibals power was broken, at some practical level, of course - his home was gone, his army taken from him. But he was still there, and after all, just like we now live in a state of continual fear of devastating terrorist attack, despite the fact that there has been essentially no change in the intensity of the actual threat (its probably decreased in fact), the knowledge of the threat is sometimes worse than the threat. Terrorism, or Hannibal, or the adult equivalent of the Bogeyman - there is no situation in which the Bogeyman can be proven to not be a threat, no matter what color the threat alert light is.

So, it was, in Libyssa, that Hannibal sat, and waited, knowing the end was at hand for him. The Romans were a huge force in the world, by then, and had finally intimidated Prusias into letting them come in and take Hannibal. Hannibal was no fool, he had secret tunnels and exits throughout the home he had in Libyssa - but someone had betrayed him. Each of these exits was guarded that day. Hannibal knew what was coming, and he knew, now, finally, there was no escape. He took poison, and left a note behind, reading something that could just as well have been tauntingly offered up by Bin Laden, if he had made one final of his infamous videos, knowing that he had been surrounded:

 "Let us relieve the Romans from the anxiety they have so long experienced, since they think it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man's death"

I do not know what happened when Hannibal died, immediately. I could guess. I'm sure that it was heralded through Rome, that there were celebrations, that it was the talk of the empire. I'm sure there was a feeling of relief, I'm sure there was some unpleasantness.

The interesting thing to me, though, is that we have such a history of him. The history the Romans left was first written by a man named Polybius, who in fact had the family of the general who defeated Hannibal as a patron. The history was detailed, and historians believe, remarkably accurate, and the interesting part to me: it presented Hannibal as an extraordinary leader, and told much of the story following Hannibal's armies, not Rome's. Hannibal was not made into the hero of the story - he was, without a doubt, a villain, someone who had done Rome great harm, and who would have destroyed it. But, he was who he was - a human being, and a, for lack of a better term, worthy foe. A Roman, reading Polybius, could sympathize and understand Hannibal, could learn from Hannibal, and at the same time, still feel glad that, in the end, he was defeated.

Watching the last few days, since the death of Osama Bin-Laden, I've been frustrated (though not surprised) to see none of this. Osama Bin-Laden is the butt of jokes, his death is hardly even a serious thing. The painting people make of him is a coward, a madman, a monster. I don't like Osama Bin-Laden. I'm not an apologist. I think his theology and his actions are wrong, and should be opposed. I am glad that he has been caught, and while I would on principle always rather someone be captured and imprisoned than killed, I can accept with peace the manner of his death, burial, etc, as far as I understand them. This was a dangerous man. 

At the same time, I think that we, as a culture, both demean ourselves, and lose the value of this event, by simply pretending he was an inhuman monster. Osama Bin Laden was a man, a man who, I honestly believe, did not think he was being evil. HE was a man fighting for what he believed was right. He was resourceful, and intelligent, consistent in his devotion to his cause, and intellectually honest. He did what he did for a cause that I do not wish to see win out in the world, but one in which he believed, as strongly as we believe in our own causes. He was a terrible man, a man who did terrible things, but he was a man. He was, for lack of a better word, a worthy adversary, one who should inspire with his death, not an effort to denigrate him - his actions are wicked enough to denigrate themselves - but a serious searching inside of our hearts, to discover where such men come from, and why they succeed against us. This is a lesson that history has a way of repeating to us until we learn it - or fail to learn it. And its not, entirely or even mostly, a military or a political lesson. It's a human one. 

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