Go to Homepage  

The Dagger in the Pillow

Who knows where the assassin will strike?

For most of us who work in the Pentagon, the September 11 crash of American Airlines Flight 77 felt no different than the usual thumps and thuds of the building's never-ending renovation process. My boss, however, sensed something the rest of us missed.

"It's a bomb," she said. "Call your loved ones and tell them you're all right. Now."

Soon shouting in the hallway confirmed the unthinkable. Someone flew a plane into the Pentagon and the two towers of New York's World Trade Center.

Fortunately, the "Five-Sided Squirrel Cage" boasts more escape routes than a prairie dog hive. On September 11, employees used all of them.

Eventually, so did my boss, but first she wafted towards the Center Court, the five-acre, open-air park in the center of the building. Along tree-shaded walkways, between bushes and shrubs still flowering in the late summer sun, about fifty similarly stupefied military personnel and civil servants stared at the brown and gray smoke billowing over the Center Court's pristine limestone walls.

The people gathered in the Center Court wore business-class uniforms and business suits instead of bomber jackets and Sunday dresses -- or tunics and togas, for that matter. But their horror was eternal. All distance from the past vanished. They could be witnesses to the bombing of Pearl Harbor or citizens of 386 B.C. Rome watching Gauls lay waste to the Forum.

The attacks of September 11 brought history into the present in other ways as well. The Romans experienced Middle Eastern terrorism in the first century. Extremists called Sicarii roamed the streets and forums of old Jerusalem stabbing religious opponents and innocent bystanders alike. The unrest caused by the Sycarii played a major role in Rome's decision to level the city and drive its inhabitants into exile.

An even closer parallel to the terrorism of Osama bin Laden and his followers can be found in the medieval Assassins. Far from the sex- and drug-crazed sensualists depicted by Marco Polo, the original Assassins were the fanatic followers of Hasan-I Sabbah. A frighteningly persuasive Shi-ite Moslem teacher, Hasan sought to purge Islam of the "impurities" exemplified by Sunni Moslems who, then as now, held most of the religious and political power in the Moslem world.

The more you read about Hasan, the more you wonder if bin Laden used Hasan's life as a model for his own. Like bin Laden, Hasan descended from a wealthy Middle Eastern family bred to sectarian politics and never-ending strife. Like bin Laden, Hasan assembled a guerilla army of "true believers" and established a power base in an inaccessible mountain stronghold (the Alamut in Azerbaijan). And like bin Laden, Hasan felt no compunction about murdering Europeans or other Shi-ites if those deaths served his ultimate goal -- destroying the existing Sunni power structure.

The fervor of Hasan's followers cannot be underestimated. They believed so strongly in their leader's religious and political vision that suicide missions held no fear for them. Once, in order to impress a visiting ambassador, Hasan ordered one follower to slit his own throat and a second to leap off a 600-foot cliff. Both followers obeyed -- and died -- without hesitation.

Hasan also trained his followers to enable them to infiltrate the households of his aristocratic enemies at will. Sometimes the Assassin murdered his quarry outright. Other times a dagger planted in the target's pillow proved sufficient to "persuade" the reluctant to Hasan's way of thinking. Hasan carried his war into the minds of his enemies and seldom lost.

For "the Master's" opponents, the most telling incident in this war of minds occurred very early in Hasan's career. Hasan sent an Assassin to kill an important advisor to the sultan of Merv. The Assassin succeeded, but the advisor's guards captured the killer before he could make his escape. Under torture, the assassin named 12 of the sultan's most trusted court officials as co-conspirators in the advisor's death.

The sultan immediately ordered the death of the 12 officials. Only later did the sultan learn that the Assassin lied. The implicated officials played no role in Hasan's plot, but by killing them on the word of a dying Assassin, the sultan became Hasan's stooge.

So what does this have to do with an entertainment 'zine? Since Crescent Blues and every other publication and broadcast originating in America takes freedom of speech and other civil liberties guaranteed by our Constitution for granted -- quite a lot.

The Order of Assassins outlasted their founder by more than fifty years. Who knows how long the current war on terrorism will last? Based on the history of the Middle East, prospects for a quick end to the conflict do not look good. This means we must fight our war on terrorism as if we expect to fight it every day for the rest of our lives. We cannot afford to let a modern-day Hasan and his Assassins poison our hearts against our each other, regardless of politics, creed or ethnic background.

Just as importantly, we cannot afford to lose the war of minds. We cannot give into fear, sacrificing our civil liberties in a reflexive grab for security at any cost. Every time we barter our right to privacy, our freedom of thought or expression for the illusion of invulnerability, bin Laden wins. Not only that, it amuses him to watch us surrender the freedoms so many Americans sacrificed their lives to preserve.

We should never give bin Laden that pleasure. Hard as it is, we must accept the fact that the false security we enjoyed before September 11 no longer exists. We need to learn to live without it, steering a middle course between complacency and repression or, again, bin Laden wins.

Bin Laden and his ilk perceive liberty and diversity as weaknesses. We must prove him wrong. Terrorists, like bullies of any age or ideological stripe, respect only one thing: strength. That means we cannot cower at the threat of the dagger in our pillow. We must teach ourselves to expect it, to wait for it and, ultimately, turn it back on our attackers without ever losing sight of who we are -- and who we want to be once this threat is past.

Jean Marie Ward

In addition to editing Crescent Blues, Jean Marie Ward writes for a number of Web-based publications. Her interview with Farscape's Virginia Hey appears in the October issue of SciFi Weekly.

Click here to share your views.