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Years ago there was a movie on the presence of the US bases here, likening the fight against it to that of a little moth taking on a giant eagle, 'minsa'y isang gamugamo ang lumaban sa lawin.' This comes to mind again as we see a small cell of terrorists inflict damage, perhaps far beyond what was originally planned, on a perceived arch enemy whose ubiquitous power and sheer size annoys many small nations into at least rattling it a bit.

It cannot be hidden, this repressed glee at seeing a lumbering giant hop and skip and fall by a bite at its heel.

It cannot be hidden, this repressed glee at seeing a lumbering giant hop and skip and fall by a bite at its heel. The Arab world crowed about it, sanctioned by its mullahs. The rest of us were appalled, while feeling some discomfort that the poor of the world die daily without notice, with neither rage nor a whiff of whimper from those of us who can do something about it. It touched me to witness much of Europe simultaneously standing still a few days after, mourning in silence the death of those who perished. At the same time, there was this niggling sense that the outpouring of sympathy was as much a product of visual incitement from BBC and CNN as a moving testament to human solidarity in the face of grief.

From this little corner of the earth I tend to look at this big event with the eyes of small people. This is not because I happen to believe that there is that genetic fault in our race which Nick Joaquin has named, quite controversially, as our 'heritage of smallness.' It is simply because our circumstances as a failing state somehow connects me to many unsuccessful people all around the world who look at the doings of the great from the bottom side, or what the Latin Americans call the 'underside of history.'

The bombing of Afghanistan, for instance, feels like one of those things we expect from a war, or at least a war where one of the protagonists is so used to being big it can not imagine any other way of 'smoking out' the enemy than razing down to the ground an entire country. Like the Afghan refugees who have fled and now mass round the borders of surrounding countries, I sensed a kind of inevitability, a fatalism even, as we heard the distant drums of war getting nearer and nearer. There is a certain inexorability about this tidal turn of events. It is a time for war, I said to myself, and no amount of shuttle diplomacy could put a stop to the logic of revenge. The poor Afghans, perhaps inured to decades of conflict, quietly accepted the prospect of mass slaughter and hied off to the borders. For the powerless, the only wise thing to do is to get out of the way. As an African proverb nicely puts it, "when the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled upon."

It should be said, though, that this conflict is not, strictly speaking, a 'war of the elephants.' It has features that are quite unusual, perhaps because we are seeing asymmetries, things that do not quite fit conventional notions of what a war is about.

It is not only that the contest is uneven, with strange results. On the one side is a roused behemoth, smashing about with a sophisticated arsenal of killing machines. Yet, while the weaponry is said to be smart, they have yet to hit their intended targets. On the other side is a loose network of scattered groups of firebrands, holed up in caves or lurking in the shadows in major cities. Operating as discrete cells, they are intractable. With fairly low technology they strike with an astonishing precision, imagination and suicidal daring.

Yet what makes this war really quite out of the usual is the way it is framed in religious terms.

Yet what makes this war really quite out of the usual is the way it is framed in religious terms. As bystanders we feel we are watching a deadly morality play, something straight out of the pages of history, as in medieval times when religion defined what was significant and men and women lived and fought and died for it.

George Bush talks of the war against terrorism as part of America's 'calling', at one time saying it is a virtual 'crusade', a quest for 'infinite justice,' a grand battle between good and evil. These are stirring words, resonating with that part of us that recoiled in shock and disbelief upon seeing so many innocent people sacrificed so coldly to the altar of a religious conviction gone haywire.

Then Osama Bin Laden comes on view in our TV screens, swearing to God that " America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine, and before all the army of infidels depart the land of Muhammad." In a single speech, he pulled together the many threads of grievance that the Arab world has against America and its allies, alluding to the suffering of innocents in Iraq, the carving up of Palestine, the undue presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia. Such injuries reminded those of us in the Two-Thirds World of our own histories, of long-standing wrong in the hands of the West, with the US as its leader in a continuing dominance that many of us resent.

The political element in all this makes us sympathetic to the underpinnings of Bin Laden's cause, though we may not share the twisted, tortuous conclusions to which he has brought the logic of his faith. The religious element in his crusade gives us the creeps, seeing how the Taliban has institutionalized its own brand of theocracy, turning a country into a clerical state that visits terror and retribution on those of its own citizens who do not happen to toe the line of its tight and narrow fundamentalisms.

There are many things in this war that throw a wrench in our usual mental grid in doing analysis. Bin Laden is not, at bottom, a politician. He is instead a religious idealist, constructing from out of the mythic past an imaginary order built out of a resurgent faith and the decayed remains of an ancient civilization. As such he is intractable, foisting on us that margin of mystery where all our calculations collapse and we come face to face with the power of human recalcitrance.

From a moving woundedness as victim, it is now back to what the world perceives as its old role—the big guy trying to police the neighborhood...

It does not help that the US, so far thwarted in its efforts at nailing down Bin Laden, seems bent on pulverizing Afghanistan till something gives way. The initial fellow-feeling in its time of sorrow is fast dwindling into discomfort over the heavy-handed way it pursues justice. From a moving woundedness as victim, it is now back to what the world perceives as its old role—the big guy trying to police the neighborhood, this time also acting as judge and executioner.

These moral ambiguities, apart from the many unknowns of this conflict, lie behind much of the hesitation to support the US militarily in its ongoing drive against terrorism. The recent APEC summit's refusal to back the US in its military campaign is part of the general reluctance to get embroiled in what looks like a war against a people. It is a wonder, in the light of this, that the Philippine government does not stop in its tracks and pause a bit. It is one thing to support the war against terrorism. It is another thing to assist in the bombing of a country wholesale, when all that is intended is to hunt down an elusive handful of misguided terrorists. Such actions merely serve to set militants aflame, instigating fresh recruits into marching in the streets or plotting mayhem, the hope of paradise glinting in their hard and shining eyes.

© Melba Padilla Maggay

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