June 03, 2002
Coincidences And Higher Standards

Ken Layne criticizes Larry Miller for arguing that the fire at the Israeli Embassy in Paris must have been due to arson, and therefore terrorism. As he says, accidents, and coincidences, do happen.

Consider this one, or rather these two:

In the first two months or so after September 11th, two airliners crashed, killing hundreds of people, including a few on the ground. One was Israeli, and exploded over the Black Sea on its way to Siberia. The other was American, and crashed in Far Rockaway, Queens, on its way to the Dominican Republic. Israel and the U.S. are exactly the two countries whose airliners Al Qaeda would most like to destroy. Yet terrorism seems to have had nothing to do with either crash. The Israeli plane was accidentally shot down by the Ukrainian Air Force, while the American plane had serious mechanical problems: the tail fell off before it crashed.

The abundance of random horror and destruction in the world makes Al Qaeda's job much harder than it would otherwise be. They need to do something that will make a spectacular impression. Destroying all seven buildings of the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon didn't even come close to collapsing global capitalism. How can they possibly top that? A month of anthrax mailings (by whomever) killed only six people. There are common street gangs in New York and other cities that could kill more people than that in an afternoon or less, and $10,000 would (I think) be more than enough to arrange it, no questions asked.

Some bloggers (e.g. Brink Lindsey) fear that Al Qaeda is planning something really big, and that is why they have been so quiet since September 11th. This can be put more pleasantly. They have to do something really big, since they have raised the bar so high that small things hardly make an impression. At the same time they don't have the resources to do anything big. This double bind is what is keeping them quiet.

Tangential pedantry:

For a classic (in more ways than one) example of an amazing coincidence, consider Socrates, who used to go around saying "by the dog", where other Greeks said "by the god". This actually gains in translation: it sounds wittier in English than in Greek, since "dog" is "god" spelled backwards, while the two Greek words have no resemblance. ("By the god" is mà tòn theón, "by the dog" mà tòn kúna.)

Similarly, Catullus' most famous line, "Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love" sounds wittier in English, with clever alliteration of 'live' and 'love'. What he wrote was Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus, and the two verbs have no resemblance to each other.

Finally, consider Myrsilus, tyrant of Lesbos in the time of Sappho. His name sounds exactly like "merciless" to English ears -- very appropriate for a tyrant -- though the meaning of the word is completely different. (Something to do with myrtle bushes, I believe.)

Posted by Dr. Weevil at June 03, 2002 11:31 PM