Sometimes I’m reminded how problematic it really is to view other societies from a distance—entirely through the filtering and abstracting lenses of the media. The feeling typically arises when I’m watching a genuinely good documentary or a foreign film, a film that its director made for another public, not ours, never even dreaming that it might actually be shown in America. Pictures from Persia have frequently had this effect on me. Suddenly I’m keenly aware not only how life in Iran is seen and felt but also—and seen through Iranian eyes—how diverse and surprising, for Iranians, it might be to see how their own rural populations live.
And in my mind I add to this a note or two. I’m actually experienced in this. I’ve been a rolling stone, rolling from Hungary to the altogether different environment of Germany, then from Bavaria to Saxony, from there to America. There was a time once in my life when I genuinely pictured America filled with cowboys and Indians—and when arrival in Kansas City, MO by night—our future home—shocked and depressed me. I arrived in the by now long-forgotten days when Neon Owned the Night, and the city didn’t look at all like the Wild West, not even the dark shadow of a buffalo in sight. Mind you, I was fifteen. And mind you, further, that I was plenty smart. The glittery intellectual surface was not in the least surprised, but deeper down we are—really we are—much more complex and strange beings, and something in my depth revolted at the trivialization of my imagination.
Now all this comes to mind when I’m forced to contemplate—through Afghanistani, Pakistani, or Yemeni eyes—and not urban eyes presumably already jaded by modernity—the impression that America produces by drones and mayhem that might have killed people known to me, a village over, say. And what this sort of thing does to fifteen-year olds there, who later, indeed soon—these wars have been dragging right along—are twenty-five-year-olds. Twenty-five-year-olds whose glittery intellectual surface may be entirely up-to-date but whose dark and archetypal depths do not approve and produce chthonic emotional upheavals. Is it to be wondered at that such experiences produce what we contemptuously label terrorism? As if we were, in our depths, superior to it?