Editorial: Good vs. Evil: The Latest Chapter in an Old Story

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday July 31, 2007

Talk about abrupt transitions: We spent a long weekend in the Santa Cruz mountains with some of the grandchildren, with no newspaper delivery and recreational attractions out-competing Internet and radio news updates. So listening to the latest news on NPR on Monday morning was the classic rude awakening, with a featured report on the secretary of state’s announcement that she’s proposing to drop more weapons, to the tune of close to $30 billion or more, into the steaming cauldron which is the Middle East today. A big hunk of the new money, $20 billion, would go to Saudi Arabia, theoretically to balance a perceived threat from Iran, but in addition, to allay Israeli fears about the Saudis, Israel’s already huge weapons funding would be increased to at least $30 billion. And there’s another $13 billion for Egypt. 

Such news is hard to square with the well-known information that the 9-11 plotters and today’s al Qaeda, wherever and whoever they are at the moment, are mainly drawn from the Saudi ruling class. Iran poses a theoretical threat because of its nuclear activities, but in what passes for reality these days, the Saudis seem to be the real threat, and yet their country continues to be the beneficiary of lavish U.S. aid. And the real dangers, to Americans, Iraqis and Israelis alike, are on the ground, from weapons so common they need an acronym: IEDs (improvised explosive devices). That means homemade bombs, and what good will the fighter jets being handed out like popcorn to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt do against homemade bombs thrown by amateur fanatics? 

But as we listened to the Monday news, it sounded strangely familiar. One feature of our long weekend was listening to stories of conflicts in exotic locales among people with unusual names over powerful weapons which promised fantastic results. Our 11-year-old granddaughter had spent the early part of the week at Lawrence Hall of Science’s backpacking camp, where she lugged along an extra five pounds or so. That was because she’d stayed up until midnight on Saturday night to acquire the most essential status item for her peer group: not the latest hoodie, not an iPhone—a book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Backpacking doesn’t provide a lot of extra time or artificial light for reading, so by the time we picked her up on Thursday to drive her home, she’d only managed to read about half of it. That meant that a major feature of last weekend was a Harry Potter marathon, including a lot of reading aloud by her and her mother so that the 6-year-old sister, an avid reader but not quite at the Harry Potter level, could share in the excitement.  

I confess that I haven’t really read much Harry Potter myself: occasional bedtime chapters of various volumes is about all. But the genre is quite familiar to any comparative literature major and opera fan like me: heroes and villains with fancy names who change places and shapes and motivations and struggle endlessly over possession of weapons perceived to have magic powers. Beowulf, the Arthurian legends, Wagner, Superman comics, the Wizard of Oz, even the Judeo-Christian bible...Harry Potter draws heavily on many story cycles with similar content. It’s all part of our human inheritance, which is why the news from the Middle East sounds so familiar, depressingly familiar in fact.  

Condoleezza Rice, like all too many secretaries of state who preceded her, is trying to sell the story that possession of the latest fantastic weapons by the forces of good, whoever they are this week, will assure that good will triumph over evil at the end of the chapter. The readiness of most Americans, even Americans in Congress, to buy this version of reality might be attributed to its similarities to familiar stories which are part of the culture, and which have been told over and over again. During the Cold War, Russians and other Communists played the part of the monsters, and now that they’ve seemingly vanished in a puff of smoke the narrative is being reconstituted with Middle Eastern characters. But keep your eye on the Russians; under Putin they seem poised to reappear as villains at any moment.  

Pursuit of treasure, another classic ingredient of legends, is the real world motivation behind arms funding, of course. While the clash between good and evil is being enacted in the foreground, Halliburton and other profiteering corporations play the role of the greedy monster sneaking up behind the combatants to make away with the treasure while they’re distracted.  

A couple of members of Congress, people identified with support of Israel, complained about the new funding for Saudi Arabia when it first surfaced on Saturday. Whether the increase in weaponry for Israel will mollify them remains to be seen. So far no one else in Congress has had much to say on the subject. 

In the meantime, while the administration is preoccupied with mythical future battles to be fought by shifting heroes with fantasy tools, on the ground in Iraq live people are dying. It’s not just soldiers in opposing forces who are suffering, it’s non-combatants and especially children as well. Also in Monday’s news was an Oxfam report which says that “as many as four million Iraqis are in dire need of help getting food, many of them children; 70 percent of the country now lacks access to adequate water supplies, up from 50 percent in 2003, and 90 percent of the country’s hospitals lack basic medical and surgical supplies.....”  

Is it too much to ask that in the second millennium since the death of Christ we humans might finally figure out that magic weapons and morphing evildoers are the stuff of children’s stories, but real children in the real world have real problems which need better solutions? Is it possible, even, that putting twenty or thirty or sixty-three billion dollars into repairing the damage we’ve done in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East might make the United States safer in the long run than providing Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel with more tools for mutually assured destruction? Can we at least talk about it?