I wonder this about terrorists, too. How does strapping a bomb to your body, or dropping a jar of anthrax dust in a crowded subway car, come up in conversation? How do you talk someone into doing something like that?
Right now I find the statements of anti-American fundamentalists and fundamentalist groups frustrating in a way that nothing has frustrated me since grade school. I say grade school because grade school is where one encounters bullies, and these people use bully logic. Bully logic runs around and around on a little track like a greyhound: nothing from the outside touches it, or has touched it for some time. When I hear Osama bin Laden say that the military strikes against Afghanistan are a sign that the Americans are frightened, I feel that frustration bubble up inside me. He is, and they all are, every schoolyard bully, those kids who beat you up for being too scared to fight back and who, when in desperation you finally do fight back, beat you up for that. They just want to beat you up, and in my mind that was always the final insult: that they really think their actions are justified, and never seem to notice that they always arrive at the same conclusion no matter what the circumstances.
Just so, bin Laden says that Americans are scared. Of course we're scared! You just threw some planes at us and made lots of us die! It was scary! But in his mind this means, somehow, that we are bad; because this is what he wants to believe. He would have found some way to believe it if we weren'tbombing Afghanistan. It's just the greyhound, running around and around after the little mechanical rabbit.
This drives me nuts!
It reminds me of fifth grade, when this kid Raphael went around the school bus asking everyone, "Are you a homo?" (A very serious question for ten-year-olds.) Of course, the kid would answer, "No!" indignantly. Whereupon Raphael would crow triumphantly: "You're not a Homo sapien?"
So when he got around to me, and asked, "Are you a homo?" I, having witnessed a few iterations of this, cleverly said, "Yes."
You can imagine the hilarity that ensued.
And speaking of hilarity, owing no doubt to some bizarre oversight a Saks Fifth Avenue catalogue was recently delivered to my door. I am fascinated by rich people. They seem to have such perverted tastes. The things in the Saks Fifth Avenue catalogue exist, and therefore there must be someone out there buying them. Someone somewhere must be willing to pay three thousand dollars for a gold-stamped calfskin Monopoly set. I'd like to meet that person, but I don't know what I would say.
I saw a little bauble that I would theoretically have been able to afford if I'd wanted. It was a bangle bracelet with a freshwater pearl set in it, and to my astonishment it was only a few hundred dollars. Then I realized that I had only read the first half of what was actually a six-figure price. That bauble cost more than the President of the United States makes in a year.
Anyway, it made me think of a story I wrote a while ago, called "Penheligon's Miracle."
J. Zander Penheligon, as the result of a capricious series of deaths in the family, became the second-richest person in America at the age of twenty-three. He was the Penheligon in Penheligon Industries, as his brother had been before him and his father before that: he was the Penheligon in Penheligon's Miracle, the small shiny object that had made his grandfather a millionaire in just under two months and that had allowed him to amass a personal fortune that, by the time it got down to J. Zander, was estimated to hover around thirty billion dollars. The Miracle, when attached to the motherboard of a personal computer, made it run one point seven to two point three times faster with no extra hardware. By the time J. Zander came into his fortune, it was impossible to buy a computer that had not had the Miracle installed in the factory. Which meant that J. Zander was going to keep getting richer no matter what he did, which explained a lot about the kind of person he had turned out to be.
By the time he was thirty, J. Zander Penheligon was well known for a number of personal eccentricities, which included a fondness for throwing paper airplanes at people as he talked to them. It was one thing when he did this at meetings of the board of directors, but quite another when he did it to the president of the United States. J. Zander made stunning paper airplanes, the kind that dodge and swoop as if guided by an unseen hand, with rotating propellers if he'd had a lot of coffee that morning. They were marvels of workmanship, but the president of the United States is not used to being treated like that, and if J. Zander hadn't been worth thirty billion dollars there might have been some unpleasantness.
It was the thirty billion dollars the president of the United States had been interested in. It was his theory that J. Zander would never miss two or three billion. Other people had had this theory before him, and J. Zander had thrown paper airplanes at them until they went away, but the president was more compelling. One of the reasons he was more compelling was that he had two Secret Service bodyguards who took J. Zander's paper airplanes away.
"You'll have to excuse me," said J. Zander. "I just don't wantto give you two billion dollars."
"What do you want, Mr. Penheligon?" asked the president. He looked much more haggard than he did on television. It was J. Zander's experience that people who need money very badly usually acquire a haggard look, but he might have thought the president would be different.
"I don't think I want anything that you could give me," said J. Zander.
"There are things that money can't buy," said the president.
"Even the kind of money you have. Think about it."
J. Zander thought about it. He already had his own Florida key and honorary degrees from fifty-seven American universities. There was a town in Arizona named after him and another one in Minnesota. The president, he knew, only had honorary degrees from seventeen American universities.
"Ooh, I know what I want!" he said after a minute.
The Secret Service bodyguards looked at each other. "Tell me what you want, Mr. Penheligon," said the president.
"I'll show you," said J. Zander, standing up.
J. Zander had a vintage 1963 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spyder and he took corners without slowing down. The presidential limousine, not designed for speed, couldn't quite keep up. When it finally came to a stop, and the president emerged from the back seat, J. Zander was waiting for him. He was sitting on a tombstone.
"Want to see what money can't buy?" he asked. "Say hello to my family."
The tombstone was quite a large one, and J. Zander's feet, despite the fact that he was six foot two, didn't touch the ground. His heels kicked against the words In loving memory.
The president looked at him for a moment and nodded ruefully. Then he signaled to his bodyguards and the three of them walked back to the limousine, leaving J. Zander alone with the only thing he really wanted.