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Close shaves

For modern tribes, symbols are deadly serious. Even the cut of a beard.

Frank Viviano wrote his first article for Mother Jones -- about Detroit's road to resurgence -- in 1980. Since then, as a Europe-based contributor to the magazine, Viviano has recounted his capture by Serbian irregulars; reported on the decline of the giant Czech steel mills; and unraveled the international web of the modern Mafia.

In these stories and others, Viviano has interpreted the enormous changes taking place in Europe. With the fall of communism, he writes, Eastern Europeans found a measure of freedom but lost the "grim cushion that protected them from...change." The end of the Cold War also undermined Western democracies that defined themselves in opposition to communism. Into the void left by declining nation-states have charged the separatists and criminals, bureaucrats and industrialists of Viviano's stories. "The nation-state," writes Viviano, "tried to pretend that tribal identity had been dispensed with -- that 'national character' could be a matter of invention and design. But the tribal map is being reasserted, and the tribal soldiers are wearing Levi's. They are moving away from the nation-state -- backward toward the tribal dawn and forward toward the 21st century at once."

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I was in Eastern Turkey, covering the Kurdish civil war, when the break-in occurred. It was a professional job, much too professional to be explained by my only material loss: the disappearance of a cheap portable radio. The thieves had cut a neat hole in the rear shutter of the house I'd rented, two miles from the village of Terrasini in western Sicily. Then, just as neatly, they'd removed a pane of glass from the window and climbed in.

There was money in the bedroom closet, a wad of banknotes in several currencies that I keep around for unexpected assignments. My backup camera and a bag of lenses were in plain view on the desk; a laptop computer was on the shelf. Nothing was missing when I returned to the burgled house last February, except the $60 radio. The boom box could not have been the purpose of the break-in. It had to be about something else.

In Terrasini, people offered a hodgepodge of theories. It might have been amorous teenagers, using what they thought was an unoccupied summer retreat. That was what Signore M., my landlord, wanted to think. Sicilians live with their parents until they marry, often up to their 30s. "Nowhere to go except somebody's country house," Signore M. said. But I sensed he didn't really believe it, and as far as I could tell, my bed hadn't been disturbed. A pair of socks I'd left lying atop the blanket was still there.

More disconcerting was the possibility that my work for Mother Jones had attracted these visitors, and that they were a far cry from horny teenagers. That their intention wasn't to steal, but to intimidate. The likely stool pigeon was the Internet. Until very recently, American foreign correspondents could pass themselves off as something less threatening than journalists: I'd traveled as an "economic analyst" in China during the Tiananmen crackdown, a "historian" in Bosnia, a "hospital administrator" in Russia. But with the sudden rise of the Internet, everything I wrote could be read with a simple search under my name, or with a fishing expedition under a topic.

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