The universe of low life

Rod Norland of the New York Times writes that in Baghdad the best police sources on the activities of the JAM and al-Qaeda are prostitutes.

One police detective said he would not dream of enforcing the law against prostitutes.

"They're the best sources we have," said the detective. "They know everything about JAM and al-Qaida members," he said, referring to Jaish al-Mahdi or Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia.

The detective added that the only problem his men had was that neighbors got the wrong idea when detectives visited the houses where prostitutes were known to live. They really do just want to talk, he said.

As I've written many times before, it is a mistake to think that "Muslim" pirates in the Philippine South are to be found praying five times a day in the mosque. You are going to have better luck wherever ladies and liquor are in more abundant supply. Although there are doubtless men who are motivated primarily by religious texts, I think they are outnumbered by those who have found religion to be the perfect cover under which to advance simpler ambitions for power and worldly desire.

This rarely comes as a surprise to the police. But it often comes as a complete shock to academics who believe what they read. Having found a reference to a Quranic text in a terrorist screed, they find it impossible, on aesthetic grounds, to imagine that the line might have been inserted into the communique in a dimly lit nightclub, mostly as a joke on academics and media anchormen, rather than on a windswept, desert mountain top.

There's a classic scene in Die Hard 1 which captures this misunderstanding beautifully. Hans Gruber takes Mr. Takagi into a room to state his demands. Takagi stops by a model of his firm's proudest project, which he believes is at the root of the terrorist attack on his headquarters.

TAKAGI: This is what this is about? Our building project in Indonesia? Contrary to what you people think,we're going to develop that region... not 'exploit' it.

HANS GRUBER: I believe you. I read the article in Forbes. Mr. Takagi, we could discuss industrialization of men's fashions all day, but I'm afraid my associate, Mr. Theo, has some questions for you. Sort of fill-in-the blanks questions actually... (He asks for the code to access vast sums of money)

TAKAGI: I don't have that code...! You broke in here to access our computer?!? ... You What kind of terrorists are you?

This exchange is arguably the saddest moment in the movie. In that split second, Takagi recognizes Hans Gruber as someone exactly like himself, only more ruthless. And the realization terrifies him. If racism, is in essence, the habit of thinking of people as being fundamentally different from oneself, then it must apply not only to imagining others as inferior but also to projecting a kind of mystical superiority upon the Other. What must have astounded Osama Bin Laden most of all about the Western intellectual elite, while simultaneously convincing him of their fatuousness, was the discovery that they would take him seriously. Groucho Marx's once said that he would never agree to become a member of a club that would accept him as a member. Maybe al-Qaeda secretly admires only those with the sense to fight them.