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The Prestige
Jan 1, 2010

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called ‘The Pledge.’ The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn’t. The second act is called ‘The Turn.’ The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret... but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige.’”

The above quote is taken from the script of the movie “The Prestige.” This article is not about that movie; nor is it a critique of any film. It is an attempt to use the theme of the movie “The Prestige” to provide a different perspective on the brutal power struggle that has taken place in the international political arena over the last century. For those readers who have not seen the movie, the story is about two famous rival magicians who sabotage one another’s performances. When one performs a successful trick, the other becomes obsessed with disclosing the secret of his competitor. The rivalry is so intense that in the end they become murderers.

Drawing an analogy, I see that the battle for “The Prestige” among today’s power centers is not that different from the deadly rivalry of nineteenth century magicians-only today’s magicians have more advanced methods and more engineering power. Moreover, the tricks they use in competition for supremacy are costing more lives than ever. Throughout human history there has always been a battle of supremacy among nations. Mostly, this has been carried out with political or diplomatic sanctions, but when necessary, this volatile rivalry has been transformed into disastrous wars with intelligent tricks.

Now, read the remainder of the article and decide for yourself whether the above analogy facilitates an understanding of the bigger picture of some global conflicts. In the end, we will focus on an alternative way that could attain much better results with more humane means.

The Pledge

The basic nature of the power struggle is that the involved parties always try to dominate one another in any domain of power-economic, military, diplomatic, ideological, technological, or cultural. They strive to establish systems and sanctions over others in order to divide up, or rather not to divide up, global resources.

In this ordinary struggle there will come a day when one or several of the parties involved in the struggle begin to feel that other means are necessary to establish a new world order, and they start to perform their magic. They start with the death of a preeminent person, or an unfortunate event; this may be a local disaster or a much unexpected incident. But whatever happens, they make a great noise about it, manufacturing a crisis, and thus attaining global attention. Sometimes the crisis is so disruptive that people are able to think of nothing else.

One recent example of this type of crisis is the tragic events of September 11, 2001. On a busy and beautiful New York morning everything stopped and events occurred that would shock the world. Some twenty crazy people-and whoever was behind them-killed more than three thousand people, bringing down the WTC towers and shaking not only New York City, but the entire world, in a matter of hours.

On another September morning, sixty years earlier, a similar disaster occurred when a madman decided to march with the German army to seize the entire continent of Europe. That march ended six years later, after millions of lives had been lost, including the lives of those who had started it.

Around twenty-five years before that, yet another disaster started with the assassination of an archduke in June 1914. Again, a sudden death and a shock wave of deaths followed the onset of World War I.

The number of examples can be increased, but the important thing here is that on a normal morning, people are shocked by unexpected news and their daily routines are disrupted. For most people, their world views change and the important paradigms shift, initiating a great change in their lives.

The Turn

Experiencing the shock that has been caused by the unfortunate events of “the pledge,” even before people have a chance to mourn, hundreds of questions start to fly… But how? Who? Why? While trying to extricate themselves from this trauma people cannot help but keep asking themselves: Who could do this? Why would they do this? And consequently, they start searching for answers.

Any victim of a disaster, indeed, anybody who experiences such an incident, is naturally filled with intense emotions. Even long after the trauma most people are still upset, anxious, sad, or angry, while others even become depressed. Therefore, they can neither think straight nor find any meaningful explanations for events. Even if they were to ask questions, it would not be possible to find any immediate answers. As a reaction, they try to find someone to blame for the situation, so that there is a target for their emotions.

It is at this point that the technical or social engineers of “the modern magicians” come on stage and make the real picture disappear by transforming it into another image. People who were looking at the screaming children or listening to the cries for help a day ago no longer see or hear such things. People who were searching for the responsible parties and who were trying to discover the truth behind all the noise, stop and search no more. The social engineers smoothly direct the attention and emotions of the general public to something else, convincing them that the source of the problem has been located; there are no more investigations. Whether that which has been selected is really responsible for whatever has happened is not really important. Rather, now what is to be done is to take appropriate action.

This is what happened to our grandfathers at the beginning of the twentieth century, or during “the turn” of World War I. By no means was the assassination of Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand the sole trigger for the conflict; for some reason (!), the war plans (German Schlieffen Plan, French Plan XVII, Austria-Hungary’s Plan B and Russia’s Plan 19) had already been engineered long before 1914.

Similarly, in “the turn” of World War II, the invasion of Poland and the Sino-Japanese war led to a global conflict that split a majority of the world’s nations into two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. Whatever the war plans that had been engineered on the two sides before the 1940s were, it was not long before more than twenty countries started fighting one another; after six years, World War II, which had spanned much of the globe, resulted in the deaths of over fifty million people, making it the deadliest conflict in human history. God knows whether justice was delivered in the end or not.

The “magicians” of that time, maneuvering the war as they wished, used every trick including, but not limited to, thousands of armored vehicles, hundreds of bombers, submarines, and finally the atom bomb, to change the direction of the war. Like in the movie “The Prestige,” some say they used the methods of Nikola Tesla, and tried to make huge objects literally disappear (the alleged Philadelphia Experiment ), and sometimes they managed to do so, but in rather more costly and deadly ways (the Manhattan Project ).

In “the turn” of 9/11 attacks, Iraq was invaded due to the allegation of weapons of mass destruction being hidden by Saddam Hussein and his connections to Al Qaeda leaders. Since this invasion, there have been some claims that the terrorist attacks and allegations were a “turn” to pave the way for a new era in human history. Let us first take a look at the third act of the aforementioned wars.

And The Prestige

The prestige, the third act, of World War I could be characterized as “New Imperialism” or “ethnic nationalism.” New imperialism was distinguished by an unprecedented pursuit of what has been termed “empire for empire’s sake.” This consisted of aggressive competition for overseas territorial acquisitions and the emergence of jingoistic doctrines in colonizing countries that denigrated the ability of the subjugated people to carry out self-government. In reaction to this, ethnic nationalism became popular in such colonies, sometimes in the form of nation-states, sometimes in extreme forms like ethnic cleansing. In the end, it would not be unfair to say that “the prestige” of World War I was very different from what had been intended.

The prestige of World War II can be depicted as post-colonialism or liberal institutionalism, both found in the discourse of Cold War. The former dealt with matters of the cultural identity of the colonized societies, whereas the latter suggested that with the right factors, the international system could provide opportunities for cooperation and interaction. Many nations in the Middle East or the Far East experienced identity problems, and in some cases these issues evolved into new crises or even civil wars. Opposing camps were maintained throughout the Cold War, with some different allies or enemies, and more deadly weapons were built. The idealism of liberal international institutions did not help much, because alternative blocks were formed in the opposing camps and this only accelerated the race to dominate one another in different power domains. Again, “the prestige” of World War II was very different than the intentions that had formed in people’s minds.

What is more interesting is that, within the causality of international relations, “the prestige” of one war became “the pledge” of the following. The nation-states or ethnic cleansing that appeared in the aftermath of WWI evolved into WWII, and the liberal institutionalism of post-WWII era has now evolved into a global war on terror. As part of the ramifications of liberal institutionalism, if states are unable to cooperate then they are curbed, with either economic or military actions. The future remains uncertain in many aspects with regards to the power struggle in the world.

In The End

All in all, the main question still remains: Are the magicians of our time achieving “the prestige” they have been creating for so long? Have we yet observed a third act which deserves our applause? I seriously doubt it. All the magic tricks they have used neither justify the means nor have they brought any prestige. For the most part they have even lost what is left of the global prestige they had. But the social engineers still keep fueling the fire with their self-fulfilling prophecies of a “clash of civilizations” and an inevitable Armageddon.

Obviously, this never-ending rivalry among modern magicians cannot bring any good to any state or nation, including those who are in control of it. The intelligence and the engineers of these magicians could very well use more productive ways to promote liberal democracy and build alliances among different nations.

There have indeed been ongoing efforts for the “alliance” or “dialogue of civilizations,” which has actually been discussed many times in this magazine, The Fountain. In two such articles, the necessity for dialogue is emphasized with evidence from religious texts given, as well as quotes from modern philosophers, and the conclusion drawn is that dialogue among people from different walks of life is inevitable. Sooner rather than later we have to learn to live together on this unique planet and share its resources with respect and compassion for all. “Even though compassion and hatred are both present as realities in this world, it is indeed compassion that is the essence of all existence. Were it not for compassion as the essence of creation, human beings or any other thing would not have come into existence nor would they remain in existence.”

In order to achieve this compassion, everyone, not only modern magicians, has to make a paradigm shift in our minds and hearts, because, as Einstein eloquently put it, “The real problem is in the hearts and minds of men. It is easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil spirit of man.” He is probably right that such a task is harder than splitting an atom, but surely, it is worth pursuing.

Veli Keskin is a freelance writer living in Maryland, USA.


  1. This quote is taken from the script of the film The Prestige, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, adapted from Christopher Priest’s novel.
  2. Plot Summary for “The Prestige”,
  3. The Planning of the War,
  4. The Philadelphia Experiment,
  5. The Manhattan Project,
  6. Salih Yucel. “The Necessity of Dialogue,” The Fountain, 2007, No. 57.
  7. M. Fethullah Gulen. “The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue,” The Fountain, 2000, No. 31.
  8. M. Fethullah Gulen. “Compassion,” The Fountain, 2008, No. 63.