...The Strangest Dream

01/02/2006 04:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I had this dream the other night in which TV pictures, news footage style, were the constant background to the focus of the dream—which I forget. All I remember is that background, visuals, no sound, that was the key to its power. Endless scenes of mayhem and carnage, riots, beatings, battles, victims. They alternated with slower paced visuals of leaders conferring, addressing audiences, addressing the camera. In all the scenes, national and religious affiliations were distinguished by costume and insignia, but they just missed being recognizable. They seemed somehow familiar, but I couldn't identify specific ethnicities or sects. It was like a broadcast from a parallel universe.

The anonymous people in the mayhem scenes had this in common: they were all in extreme states of rage or grief or pain. The leaders also had something in common: they were uniformly self-possessed. Some were grave, some forceful, some empathic—but they were all deliberate. They were doing things on purpose. Because there was no sound, hence no meaning, it was impossible to identify, let alone evaluate, the various grievances and causes. The dream gave no sense of what was at stake. There was nothing but the contrast between those leaders and the masses of their followers, back and forth, back and forth, from solemn face and decisive gesture to mobs beating helpless victims, soldiers blasting weapons into streets of rubble, stricken women keening over slaughtered children, back and forth, back and forth.

You knew it would never end.

For a few long minutes after waking, barely waking, still dozing really, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that this had been the most significant of dreams because it posed this question: why were all those millions of people paying attention to those leaders at all? It seemed so absurd. Why did they let themselves be led—and so deliberately, that was the thing—to such extremes of suffering and cruelty, on such a massive scale? For a long time I lay there, in the grip of the dream, in thrall to that question. It seemed like the only deep question left.

A child's question, of course, and as I came fully awake, grown-up common sense and a knowledge of history returned—and so did the importance of what the dream left out, actual circumstances, the specific rights and wrongs of human conflict. Maybe pacifists could see the world as it was in that dream, I thought, but not me. Still, it stayed with me; the atmosphere would not dissipate. Even now, weeks later, watching the news, I get this powerful impression of some terrible pathology at work in that contrast between the posturing of the vested few and the rage and suffering of the many. The leaders rise to meet some crisis of their own making, surrounded by tokens of allegiance—a banner, a certain typography, a style of architecture, garment, furniture—and somehow that it is enough to move millions to sustained and collective acts of utter desperation against total strangers at the behest of men they've also never met.


The answer is obvious, actually. That's what happens when a Paleolithic bio-psychological apparatus outfitted with 21st century technologies of conflict is thrown into an environment saturated with fabulously powerful representations of us and them. At some level, we know that this is the basic explanation, take it for granted maybe, because it is so basic that no practical solution follows from it. Still, it may be worth recalling this fundamental fact as events take their dreadful slow-motion turn toward inevitable catastrophe: everyone in this technologically enhanced world is functioning with emotional and cognitive equipment adapted to life in a band of hunter-gatherer primates.

Good night, and good luck.