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Moby-Dick and the War on Al-Qaeda Remember the Pequod!

Moby-Dick and the Hunt for Bin Laden

by Brendan Cooney

But wherefore it was that after having repeatedly smelt the sea as a merchant sailor, I should now take it into my head to go on a whaling voyage; this the invisible police officer of the Fates, who has the constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and influences me in some unaccountable way– he can better answer than any one else. And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:

“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States. “WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL.” “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.”

Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces- though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.

Chapter One Moby-Dick Herman Melville

As a species that has evolved for millions of years in hunting-and-gathering environments, our adrenalin starts to run whenever we sniff a hunt. U.S. officials may not be trained in anthropology, but they understood this instinct well enough to know that their action in Afghanistan would sell better if they put a picture in the sights. Better a face than a group; better the name of a group than an idea, better an idea than blind attacks. If “terror” is too diffuse, then make it bin Laden. But bin Laden might get killed, so broaden it to Al Qaeda, no the Taliban. Once they are defeated, extend it back to Terror.

One hundred fifty years before the U.S. went hunting in Afghanistan, Herman Melville published the most famous American hunt story, a novel that might be seen today as a cautionary tale against foolish chases-Moby Dick. Captain Ahab uses the same psychological strategy as President Bush’s “dead or alive” rhetoric when he announces to the crew of the Pequod that the ship now has but one mission: to kill Moby Dick, the horrible White Whale who bit off his leg years before. No longer is the voyage about making money from commercial whaling. It is now a quest for retribution. Ahab must know that if he presents the challenge of a hunt-especially for revenge-the men will forget why they came along in the first place, and that their human urge for the hunt would take over. The gauntlet Ahab throws down to his crew is precisely the one Bush flung upon the world: you’re either with us or against us. Adrenalin seizes the crew. They take an oath to hunt the whale. The ship sinks. Everyone dies except Ishmael, the narrator.

The narratives bear other striking similarities. Like the United States suffering the loss of its towers and the people in them, Ahab’s body and pride were wounded when the White Whale “dismasted” him in its ivory jaws (Chapter 36). In a mad rage Ahab redirects his crew, which hails from all over the world and is joined in the ship on the economic mission of hunting whales for profit, to a course of violent revenge, just as the United States has redirected a group of countries already joined under its economic stewardship onto a quest to restore its pride.

Both missions, of course, are doomed. Ahab never has a chance against Moby Dick, a force of nature that most sea captains know it is not their business to mess with. Similarly, the United States has no hope in its stated goal of eliminating terrorism. Whoever hates America can always find a way to attack it. To eradicate terrorism therefore would be to wipe out antipathy against America, a human sentiment that most leaders would recognize cannot be controlled. America’s means of effecting that change-dropping bombs on innocent people in one of the world’s most destitute countries-can hardly be more effective than having done nothing at all.

It is obvious to the other sea captains that Ahab’s hunt is lunacy. Ahab asks an English captain who has lost his arm to Moby Dick if he harpooned him the next two times he saw him. “Didn’t want to try to,” the captain answers. “Ain’t one limb enough? What should I do without this other arm?” He continues: “No more White Whales for me. [H]e’s best let alone; don’t you think so, Captain?”

“He is,” answers Ahab. “But he will still be hunted, for all that. What is best let alone, that accursed thing is not always what least allures. He’s all a magnet!” (Chapter 100). The English captain then asks a Pequod crewmember if Ahab is crazy.

If Ahab can be seen as the United States, and Ahab’s crew as the countries allied with the U.S. in its war, Starbuck can be seen as Pakistan and anyone else wrestling with the wisdom of that alliance. Starbuck, the first mate, is the only crewmember to protest the hunt: “I came here to hunt whales,” he tells Ahab, “not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield?” (Chapter 36).

To hell with money, Ahab says. “[M]y vengeance will fetch a great premium here!” he says, pounding his chest.

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cries Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

Starbuck is horrified by Ahab’s sense of himself in relation to the natural world.

But Ahab’s thinking springs from a bedrock ideology in America that man can and should control nature, an idea growing out of The Bible and the frontier mentality and continuing all the way up to George Bush suggesting that he can eliminate from the world all the people who hate America enough to hurt it.

Even after he protests, however, Starbuck goes along with the hunt. Starbuck, Melville wrote elsewhere, represents “the moderate man, the invaluable understrapper of the wicked man.” In this, Starbuck is similar to all the moderate people in the world who are just going along with the Bush Administration’s action because they either don’t care strongly enough about stopping it or they’re scared to stand up to the United States, since it is the skipper of the global economic ship. Moderate followers are crucial to the success of any big hunt or any evil man, Melville suggests.

Under a magnifying glass, the analogy starts to fall apart, of course. Ahab may be doomed, but at least the quarry he is hunting is the same who bit off his leg. The United States has killed many people who have nothing to do with its injury. Another difference is that the U.S. has enemies who hate it, and the September attack was predatory. Moby Dick is just a whale minding his own business who chews up ships in self-defense.

Why we are going along with this hunt is both harder and easier to understand than why the crew of the Pequod goes along with Ahab. We are not in a savage environment like a ship in the middle of the ocean. We have more access to our rational minds and thus should be able to see the absurdity of attacking Afghanistan. On the other hand, Ahab’s crew wasn’t injured, in the way that U.S. citizens feel violated and hurt by the September attack. For the Pequod crew, it is a hunt for hunt’s sake, and the retribution is imaginary, through identification with Ahab’s injury. The U.S. public, on the other hand, felt injured, and they joined the hunt with a sense of retribution. (The extent to which the injury was imagined and the whole idea of a nation is imagined are separate questions.) We are never so blind as when our pride is battered and we feel compelled to save face.

Why do we embark on preposterous hunts? Clearly we haven’t evolved a gene for engaging in foolish battles. That gene would have sunk with ships like the Pequod. We must also have some mechanism for self-correction, an instinct that tells us to walk away when the fight is unwise. After all, the other captains on the high seas know enough to leave Moby Dick alone. But perhaps the self-correction mechanism walks the plank when the hunt is about saving face. A simple hunt is alluring enough. When you add revenge, the quarry becomes “all a magnet,” overpowering whatever rationality we’ve evolved to counteract our savage impulses. From a sociobiological perspective, the U.S. response to the Sept. 11 attack suggests is either the predominance of the face-saving urge among humans or, more gravely, that those without good self-monitoring will eventually be selected out of the population. That is, unless the United States snaps out of its sense of indomitability, it may be doomed to follow the Pequod to the bottom of the indifferent sea.

William Faulkner wrote in the Chicago Tribune in 1927 that his fascination with Moby Dick was that it showed a man “bent on his own destruction and dragging his immediate world down with him with a despotic and utter disregard of [its people] as individuals.”

To some extent, any war necessitates a blindness to the individuality of the people being attacked. The U.S. would not have bombed Timothy McVeigh’s neighborhood to get him the way it bombs Afghan villages to get bin Laden. It is easier to ignore humanity on foreign soil. But, as Faulkner points out, Ahab is disregarding his own people in taking his ship down with him. Likewise, as hatred of America surely will intensify around the world in reaction to U.S. terrorist-hunting, Bush is taking all of us down with him.

Brendan Cooney is a writer from Boston. He has a master’s degree in cultural anthropology and can be reached at: itmighthavehappened@yahoo.com