Osama’s Dead


Big news: U.S. commandos have killed Osama bin Laden. He’s certifiably dead. Never mind the adage that goes:  “Don’t believe anything until it has been officially denied.”  I belive this news, in part because even Al Qaeda has conceded that it’s true.

Frankly, I thought he died long ago in the caves of Tora Bora, in 2002, and yet I still think his killing now is important news. I think it’s big news even though I have long been saying, it doesn’t matter if he’s alive or dead becuase he’s been irrelevant for years. I never bought the Bush Administration theory that Osama bin Laden was a terrorist mastermind with sleeper cells in every American city and terrorist tentacles in every corner of the globe. I did (and do) believe he was a ruthless, cold-blooded bastard, who was out to spawn a war and succeeded. I did (and do still) fear the violence, chaos, and hatred he helped to set in motion. But I never lost any sleep worrying about Osama bin Laden per se. As a personal threat to me or my loved ones, he ranked somewhere south of lightning.

And yet, I do predict that his death will mark a dramatic change–even though I doubt bin Laden has been directing much of the violence that has been plaguing the world in these last ten years. I don’t even think it’s even al Qaeda stoking the violence anymore. It’s not even radical Islamists. In fact, in the years since 9/11, the proliferating warfare has been driven far more by Western aggression in the Islamic world as by Islamist aggression in or against the West.

But here’s the thing: many American leaders have wanted to extricate the country from this quagmire, but they couldn’t. Domestic politics tied their hands. In the feverish aftermath of 9/11, Bush recklessly declared a shapeless, undefined war against a shapeless, undefined enemy. He then cast himself as the decision-making, mission-accomplishing, butt-kicking cowboy. He soon found he had backed the country into a terrible corner, but by then it was too late. Having whipped the nation into a frenzy, he and his cohorts could not withdraw from war-making until they could say “We’ve won.” And the nature of the war they had declared meant that the “We’ve won” moment could never come. It could not come because there was no specifiable goal, no way to identify victory, no one over whom to triumph.

If you’re fighting another country, you’ve won when you take their capital. If you’re fighting a criminal organization, you’ve won when you’ve captured their leaders and/or shut down their operations.

But in the war-on-terror declared by Bush, the other side was never going to say “We surrender” because there was no “we”. The “other side” was not a state or syndicate or even a fixed entity. It was a condition: a potent brew of poverty, impotence, resentment, humiliation, and anger cooked into a movement by a socially created ideology that had accumulated over time and had come to permeate the Islamic world. No command headquarters were needed to preach it or promote it. Anyone with a grievance could dip into this common store of rancor and take from it what they needed to excite a few cadre into a “mission.”

That being the case, anything the United States did to break the insurgency could only add to the humiliation and resentment fueling the fire on the Muslim side. Fighting the war was causing the war. Fighting it harder was making it burn hotter.

What’s worse, over these last few years, local grievances with a long local history have overtaken the “Jihadist” character of the violence. In Afghanistan, for example, the supposed Taliban have fragmented into a myriad groups driven more by xenophobic localism than be any narrative of apocalyptic struggle. And this is an old drama in Afghanistan, a drama that the United States and NATO cannot solve in the short term. In fact, the growing number of foreign troops in Afghanistan has correlated alarmingly to a growing and spreading insurgency. It’s a quagmire. Everyone knows it.

And yet any U.S. President who simply stopped the war and brought the troops home knew his rivals would say he was accepting a defeat for America and drive him from office. Even those who thought the war should be stopped and troops brought home would say it becuase it would be way to drive this guy from office and take his seat. And then, having driven a president from office for being a quitter, his successor could not do anything but keep fighting.

That’s why the death of Osama bin Laden is such big news. It doesn’t change much of anything on the ground. Al Qaeda had already fragmented and had been superseded by many other groups, and yet the war raged on, hotter than ever. The death of Osama bin Laden has only symbolic importance. But the symbolism is huge. The death of Osama makes Barack the Osama-killer. He can claim credit for achieving the single definable goal of the war on terror which gives him, for the moment at least, political maneuvering room that neither he nor Bush ever had. It gives him the opportunity to say “We won, we can bring the troops home.”

Of course, it’s not as if the world will be filled with peace and light the moment America withdraws its troops from Afghanistan. But that’s another question for another time.





Forty-five years ago, I went to Canyonlands, a place in southern Utah. I was a student at Colorado Rocky Mountain School then, and the school traditionally took us kids on two camping trips a year, one in the fall, and one in the spring. Fall Trip was only three days long, we went to places near campus; but Spring Trip lasted for a week and we went to places far away and hard to get to. Each year, there were eight or nine trips to choose from, and we signed up for the one we wanted. That year, my senior year of high school, my second year in America, I wanted to go rafting down the Green River, but everyone wanted to go rafting on the Green, and by the time I got to the sign-up sheet, it was filled. So I signed up for Canyonlands, my second choice. I remember the big covered trucks the school used to transport us to the park, one long day’s ride away. I remember my (relatively) new American comrades playing guitars in the truck as we hurled along, and singing “folk songs”  such as Kumbaya (I still don’t know what a kumbaya is) and Blowing in the Wind. And I remember how the ride was flavored with subtle romantic excitement because we were boys and girls together, a dozen or more of us in the close quarters of that truck, in the sexual flush of late adolescence, riding through Western landscapes, headed toward adventure.

And I remember where we camped: a large cave-like hollow under an overhanging sandstone cliff and how, in the distance, from the campsite, we could see the Needles–spires of red sandstone, a virtual forest of them, thrusting up from the desert floor, each one a hundred or two hundred feet tall.

The next day, a group of us guys headed for those spires. The Needles were a maze of labyrinthine cracks and passageways among towers of red sandstone, full of chimneys that a climber could shimmy up inside of, and vertical faults that a guy could climb up by using layback techniques, and ledges that a fellow could inch along to perilous and thrilling heights, and cliff-like faces studded with toe- and fingerholds that were all the more exciting to cling to when you knew that you’d be falling fifty feet to your death if you lost your grip.

Rock climbing was the only sport I was ever really good at, because I had grown up in the mother of all rocky places, the Hindu Kush mountains, I had no fear of heights, and I was a skinny stick of a guy, not strong but strong for my weight, strong enough to lift twice my own weight. We had a climbing rope along, but it wasn’t that useful because none of us was at the top of any of the places we were climbing, in a position to belay the others. So the rope was mostly just a heavy coil of awkward extra weight to carry and maneuver.

I don’t remember how many of us were in the group at the start, maybe five or six, but it thinned out one by one as guys got cowed by one challenge or another and turned back. After a couple of hours, it was down to two of us, Burr Overstreet and me. And we went on climbing around in that magnificent maze for hours. The next day, I should have been sore, but limbering up took no time, and I soon felt vigorous enough to embark on a hike along a dry stream bed, through canyons of red rock twisted by erosion. There were only three of us that day: Mary Janss, a gorgeous superstar athlete (she had a plausible shot at going to the Olympics as a downhill racer) Lyman Allen, our English and creative-writing teacher, and me. We hiked twenty miles that day; and that’s how I know that twenty miles was the absolute maximum distance I could walk in a day at my peak physical condition. (Mary, I think, could have gone another twenty.)

A few days later, when we left Canyonlands, I looked back at the Needles receding toward the horizon and said to myself, “I am going to come back to this place before I die.” [column]

Forty-five years passed and “go-to-Canyonlands” was always on my to-do list, but it was down near the bottom among the items I never get around to, like “achieve perfection” and “clean out the basement.” And every time it seemed like it would be a viable option, something came up, or it seemed just too far away. This year, Debby and I considered going camping on Vancouver Island but someone said it would be raining in May, so we decided to go to Yellowstone instead, because neither of us had ever been there, but someone said, “Yellowstone in May? Are you insane? Snow!” Then it hit me–Canyonlands. The Needles. May is the perfect time to go, before it gets hot. And 62 is the perfect age, if you want to go before you die. It was a 2600 mile drive, and gas had just climbed to $4.40 a gallon, but the distance would never be less, the gas would probably never be much cheaper, and neither of us would ever be younger.

Well, it turned out as I remembered: this is a landscape like nothing else anywhere. And for me (just as I remembered) there is something mystically thrilling about rock itself, great hunks of it carved into strange shapes by natural forces: the imposing solidity of it all, especially in that desert atmosphere, the aroma of desert scrub, under that huge desert sky.

But things are different there now. And no doubt they should be. No doubt it’s for the best. Canyonlands (I discovered) was first declared a national park in 1965, just one year before I was there the first time. In 1966, I’m guessing, regulations and limitations had not yet been promulgated. Boys like Burr and me could just take off across the desert and roam wherever we wanted. Today, the park is laced with paved paths that take one to “viewpoints”. Signs warn visitors not to step off the paths because the desert is a delicate environment in which each human footstep can crush a fragile crust of bio-soil that took centuries to mature. The actual Needles are a three-mile hike from the nearest place one can drive to–more than I could manage, considering that it would be another three-mile hike to get back. Therefore, I never got in amongst the rocks I remembered from long ago.

What’s more, today, only proven climbers with special permits are allowed go right into places like the Needles, and climb around there. And they have to climb only particular routes that have been identified as official rock climbs, not just anywhere that looks interesting.

In other words, the experience I had of Needles forty-five years ago is one that I can never have again–that nobody can have. And frankly, when I think about it, I’m amazed the school let Burr and me tool off into that forest of rocks without supervision. We could have been hurt or killed. No one even knew where we had gone. No one asked when we would be back. No school would allow such a thing today. It would be unthinkable–a lawsuit waiting to happen.

So I feel all the more fortunate that I was there in that fleeting moment when the experience existed–not just the place, but the experience! All of which is not to say the place is trivial. What we just did at Canyonlands, and at nearby Arches, and at Zion Canyon further south was like going to a museum. We moved from viewpoint to viewpoint and gaped at a jaw-dropping sight. Occasionally we had to hike a mile or two to see something. And seeing was good enough for me now. I can cross this one item off my master list. I said I would go back there and I’ve done it. And I’m here to recommend: this is a pilgrimage everyone should make at least once in their lifetime if they are able.




Trouble with Basketball



The Trouble with Basketball


So I’ve been sort of watching the NBA playoffs and I have something to say; and I warn you, don’t read this unless you’re such a basketball junkie, you could spend hours discussing the most minute technical details of the game.

Here’s what I want to say.

A couple of weeks ago, San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter Bruce Jenkins said the playoffs had taken a definitive turn because of two “monster-dunks” by Kobe Bryant. Those two dunks, he said, changed the whole course of the playoffs. Those dunks, he implied, announced that the Lakers were going to win it all.

The naïve observer might ask: how many points is a dunk worth? The answer: two. How many points for a clumsy off-balance shot that clunks off the rim and teeters in by pure chance? Two.


Too many dunks

I used to watch basketball avidly. It was the first spectator sport I got into when I got into spectator sports (which wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco in 1977) What I loved about the game at first was the grace of the athletes. But I quickly came to realize that there is nothing to the game unless there is more it than acrobatic grace. Ballet dancers are graceful too, but I personally don’t find ballet all that riveting. Why not? Because there is only one team on the floor. No one is trying to stop those dancers from performing their beautiful acrobatic moves. When they go up for spinning soars, they don’t have to worry that a seven-foot behemoth might crash into them at the top of their arc and send them writhing to the floor. It isn’t just balletic grace that makes basketball (or any sport) interesting: it’s the competition.

By now we know that Bruce Jenkins was wrong: Kobe’s two monster-dunks didn’t foretell how the playoffs would go. The Lakers were swept by the Dallas Mavericks in their next series. Why did Jenkins think two dunks by Kobe spelled doom for all of the Lakers’ upcoming opponents? Because Jenkins thinks intimidating acrobatic dunks are what basketball is all about. And for him, maybe it is. And he’s not alone.

But look: if a game evolves into one that only 14-foot guys able to leap twice their own height can play, you’re going to see a lot of dunks. I began to lose interest in basketball when I had seen my quota of acrobatic dunks. At some point, each new dunk looked like one I saw Dr. J. do 50 years ago, or Michael Jordan a few years later, or Wilt the Stilt a few years earlier, or a parade of others along the way.

All of them can dunk. Big deal.


Telepathy vs Telepathy

The real game is the competition that unfolds between two teams. What’s really riveting is the telepathy of five guys working together pitted against the telepathy of five other guys working together, all ten operating at lightning speed and making split-second decisions based on what they think all the other nine are doing or about to do, with one team trying to put the ball in the hoop and the other trying to stop the ball from going through the hoop.

My interest in basketball faded a bit over the years, because the game isn’t set up to spotlight the competition between two teams. It’s set up to spotlight superhuman individual acrobats soaring gracefully to the basket. That’s why Bruce Jenkins could announce confidently that the playoffs were over the moment he saw Kobe Bryant make two dunks.

The crux of the matter is fouls. Basketball is supposed to be a no contact sport. The players can’t just bump and shove and push and hit one another. That would be a different game. Might be a good game, but it would be a different one. In this game, defensive players have to stop offensive players by herding them off course, obstructing their path to the basket, slapping the ball out of their hands, blocking the ball once it’s in the air, forcing them to take bad shots, all without touching them. If two guys crash together, someone has committed a foul.


Level Playing Field

But which of the two has committed the foul?  That’s the question. If the rules were properly set up, scoring would be just exactly as difficult as stopping someone from scoring. The rules would establish an exactly level playing field. If they did, you would see, on average, about 50 percent of the fouls called on the defense and about 50 percent on the offence. Any deviation from the average would derive from one side playing better than the other. That would be real competition.

Instead, offensive fouls are rarely called. I don’t know the exact statistics, but the ratio seems to be in the range of 90 to 10. In other words, the rules make it almost impossible for the defense to stop the offence. What fun is that?

The game generated by those rules predictably consists of one team racing up the floor and scoring; and then the other team racing up the floor and scoring. If you only want to see acrobatic dunks, you’re in hog heaven. But if you want to see competition, you’re waiting and waiting for those rare occasions when one team or the other fails to score—that is, when someone makes a stop on defense.


What Replays Show

The other day, watching a playoff game, I noticed something irritating. Replays rarely show the play that just ended, which was almost always a play in which someone failed to score. Instead, they always go back to the last spectacular, successful offensive play. They show someone driving to the hoop for a lay-up or pulling up for a twenty-foot jumpshot that drops through the hoop clean.

Here’s my problem with that. When you watch basketball you instinctively watch the ball. Therefore, you’re almost always following the guy who has the ball. Therefore, when he scores, you see him score—and you see exactly how it happens. You don’t need a replay. You saw the play.

But when there’s a defensive stop, it’s always because of a bunch of stuff that happened away from the ball. It happened because the defense was anticipating brilliantly, because guys were moving into strategic positions, setting picks, herding ball handlers to untenable spots, cutting off lanes, boxing out, switching off. All of this defensive brilliance ends in someone failing to score, but we rarely see quite how the stop was achieved. We were watching the ball.


The Answer

There is one simple fix basketball could adopt. It wouldn’t fix the whole problem, but it would help. The refs could call fouls based strictly on what happens at the moment of contact between two players. It shouldn’t matter who the players are, who got whom in the air, or who committed to what lane at what point. The player who initiates contact commits a foul: period. Crash into someone–your bad. End of story. That’s simple, clear-cut and unambiguous. To judge who fouled whom, you need only see the two players involved at the moment of contact.

Instead, in basketball, almost every foul call is a judgment call. It could go either way, and it’s almost impossible to keep feelings out of judgments. (That’s more or less true in life, as well.) I myself can say quite sincerely that the team I favor never commits a foul. I just don’t see any. It’s always the other guys. So obvious! If I happen to be with someone who’s rooting for the other team, they see my team commit every foul. It’s astounding. It’s like they’re blind or something.

That ambiguity—the fact that every foul call is a judgment call—gives the referees too much power to influence the outcomes of games. I’m not saying they’re taking payoffs. (I wouldn’t know.) I’m saying there are always irresistible emotional reasons to favor one team over another, and I don’t just mean the home-town boosterism found in all sports. I’m thinking about the dramatic story that develops around each crucial game, especially in the playoffs.

The refs see and feel those stories in the same way as the general basketball-viewing public. In the playoffs especially, there is almost always some match-up everyone wants to see in the next series. That desire almost always reflects the widespread obsession with acrobatic scoring machines.


The Magic vs. Jordan Syndrome

I’m remembering, for example, the 1991 semi-finals. The Lakers were facing the Blazers in the west. Chicago was playing the Pistons in the east. If the Lakers and Bulls when, we would see Magic Johnson versus Michael Jordan in the finals. Magic was nearing the end of his career but he was still awesome on the court. Michael Jordan was rising to greatness in Chicago and finally coming into his own. The Pistons had won the championship twice in recent years. People were tried of them. And they were a cadre of bruising bullies known as The Bad Boys: they were not popular with the fans at large. The Blazers had Clyde Drexler who was good but not as good as Magic, not as good as Jordan. I know how everyone felt. I felt it too. I was hungry to see Magic and Michael Jordan go head to head. Were the referees exempt from feeling what all the rest of us felt? I don’t think so. Did the Blazers and Pistons really have a chance that year?

Hey, I was rooting for the Lakers and Bulls but I’ll be the first to admit:  I saw the better team go down in each of those series, and it left a bad taste. The losers lost because of the way the games were called. I’m not saying the referees threw the games. It wasn’t that they called fouls inconsistently. It’s just that a referee has so much discretion.  And there are whole styles of refereeing, each of which favors one style of play over another.  The ref can, for example, blow the whistle the instant any contact occurs; or he can, as the cliché goes, “let them play,” calling a foul only when the banging gets severe. Some teams thrive on speed and outside shooting. Their game won’t be affected much if the referee calls fouls closely. Some teams win by driving to the hoop and banging under the basket for rebounds: they’re at a disadvantage when the referee blows the whistle as soon as lots of bodies are crowded together pushing and jostling. Even when the referees call fouls the same way for both team, they’re favoring one team. The ambiguity of the rules guarantees it.

I know there are people who don’t like professional basketball. The standard joke is: each team should start with a hundred points and the game should be one minute long—because only close games are interesting and only the last minute of those. That criticism would not apply if the game were reformed to put defense and offense on an equal footing and spotlight the competition between two teams instead of the acrobatics of playground stars.