Sunday, July 23, 2006

In Their Shoes

Early in The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (pp. 7-8), Ron Suskind describes what it's like to walk in the shoes of someone on the front lines of the "war on terror," perhaps those of an intelligence analyst:

From their shoes, you can actually feel the soft turf of a shifting landscape. Changes with each step. Walk a while, and you begin to know enough to sense what you don't know, or can't be sure of, as well as the few helpful things that have been discovered and verified about how the world’s terror networks now operate, and how they are evolving. You know that the enemy is everywhere and nowhere, crouched, patient and clever, watching how you move so they can move in the opposite direction, the surprising direction, undetected. You whipsaw between grudging respect for their methodology and murderous rage--if you only get your hands on the courier, the cell leader, the top lieutenant, then they'd know suffering. And tell all. If only. And then you could sleep, at least that night, because you’d know where to aim the armed aerial drone or the muscled-up unit with the night-vision goggles--so much firepower, built up and ready; so few clues about where to point it. Or so few good clues, solid clues. Plenty of noise, God knows, leads galore, piled to the ceiling, and you spend half your life chasing nothing, garbage. Everything starts to look suspicious: whole groups of people with their strange tongues and habits and deeply held certainties prompt alarm, because the ways they move from anger to rage to violence are not so very clear, and if one out of a hundred, a thousand, makes that jump you’re talking an army--a vast, invisible army--un-uniformed and moving freely through a marketplace where anything can be found and tried--unbelievably destructive stuff--all click and buy, with downloadable manuals. And you haven't seen your wife, or husband, or kids, or whoever you care about in weeks, or months; and while you thrash this way and that, everyone you meet, including your bosses, asks "Are we safe, are we safe yet?"--even people who should know better--while you miss everything: the baby showers, the school plays, the weddings and funerals. And you look for handles, a framework from the familiar, to make sense of the solemn insanity of this life, deep inside the so-called "war on terror," and you realize you're neck-deep in a global game of Marco Polo, in an ocean-sized pool--but all of it deadly serious, winner take all. It's terrible in that pool. Especially when it's deathly quiet--the way it is in the months after 9/11--and no one is answering when you yell "Marco," and you only feel the occasional whoosh as your opponent silently passes, and you snap around while images of burning buildings and exploding planes dance behind your closed eyelids.

The breathless style of this passage is not the norm in The One Percent Doctrine, but it does a good job of providing some sense of the problem that Suskind seeks to describe. So far, the book merits the decision I made to move it past several of the works that have been on my reading list for much longer.