Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Super Powers of a Superpower

This article from the Financial Times detailing the European Union's list of 150 changes in Turkish governance that would be required for Turkey to join the EU reminded me of my time trucking around Istanbul's gecekondu (squatter) neighborhoods. It was after September 11, 2001 and during the ramp-up of rhetoric before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and this is what I wrote at the time:

Istanbul, July 28, 2002—I’ve been here in the city of the sultans for almost three months, and America the superpower follows me wherever I go. You are American, people say. What do you think about September 11th?

I tell them all that I live in New York, that I stood on my roof and watched the Twin Towers fall. But that’s not what most people want to hear. They want theories, not facts. And regarding September 11th, the left, right and center all agree: It was an inside job.

To left-wingers, it was an act designed by the CIA to give America protective coloration for its imperialist doctrine of world domination. The U.S. is a superpower, my socialist friend Zamanhan tells me. Who else but the American intelligence services could fly a plane into the Pentagon, a building which has a defense system designed to shoot down anything that gets within three hundred meters of it (they have this system in Ankara, he notes, so how could they not have it at the Pentagon.) Besides, he adds, the U.S. covertly funded Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban when they were warring against Soviet occupation. Once an operative, always an operative: these were CIA agents at work.

The right believes it was economic at root: an act designed by the military to help rebuild the American economy by bolstering the war machine in the wake of the dot com collapse. The U.S. is a superpower, Mustafa, a soft-spoken fundamentalist who works for the municipal government in the deeply religious suburb of Sultanbeyli, tells me. How is it possible that this little group based in the mountains of Afghanistan could have penetrated America’s high tech air defense system? How is it possible they could have come and gone from the U.S. so freely. How could America not have known this was happening? It must have been planned by the military so that the government can spend billions and billions of dollars on new missiles.

And Ali, who is mostly moderate in his views, insists that the attack was engineered from within to give the U.S. a reason to invade Afghanistan, which he claims is strategically important because it gives the America a base of operations from which to control Asia, the Middle East, and even the former Soviet republics. The U.S. is a superpower, he tells me. It wants to control all these regions. And anyway, how could it not know immediately that four planes were hijacked and where they were heading? How could it not have shot them down? This was clearly an inside job.

Of course, some people also mention Israel. If the superpower didn’t do it, then its friends the crafty Israelis must have. The MOSSAD security service, they say, has the power to have made this happen, and is in league with the CIA anyway. What’s more, a fundamentalist friend added, everyone knows the Jewish ideology is for world domination and to make everyone else serve them.

In a conspiracy-laden world, the facts don’t matter—-and here’s my personal favorite, advanced by a very smart and sober man. I have read, he told me, that the World Trade Center was built by the Japanese and a rival firm wanted to prove that the technology used to build such skyscrapers could not withstand extreme heat. So it arranged this all to prove that the construction technology was unsafe.

Everywhere I go, I am America’s roving answer man. Why is America friends with Israel and not the Palestinians? Why does America want war with Iraq? Why are American cops always beating up black men? Why does America go around causing so much trouble in the world? Why does George Bush hate Muslims?

I remind myself that Istanbul was the capital of the world’s superpower 500 years ago. If a Turk had suddenly appeared in a working class area of London in the 16th century, it’s likely he would have been treated far more rudely than me and asked far more shocking questions.

Recently, I was sitting in the shade of a brick pile drinking tea with a group of ten or fifteen people—-family and friends who were recovering from a wedding that had taken place earlier in the week. We were silent for a while, and then a muscular man with a stylish goatee spoke up: What do you think about Turkey joining the European Union? I rejoiced: Finally, a political question that did not involve the U.S. and its super powers.

Tell me what you think, I said, because I think this is for the Turks and the Europeans to decide.

I think it’s a good thing, he said, but there’s one problem: I have heard that if we do join, America will seize Cyprus.

Why the hell would America want Cyprus? I asked.

He smiled and shook his head knowingly: America is a superpower, he said, and it will not let us do this without getting something in return.

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