A moment of dread
(from Feb. 7, 2003)
I do not know how long it has been since millions of ordinary Americans have felt the way we're feeling right now. I don't know if we’ve ever felt anything like this before.
I did not live through a world war, the Korean war, the McCarthy era, the Cuban missile crisis, or the assassinations of the 1960s. I didn't know much about the Vietnam war. So it makes me wonder. I did have a taste of the cold-war horror of nuclear armageddon. But that was always a picture of some moment in the indeterminate future.
But in recent days - I'd place it as since the Space Shuttle ripped apart - I've sensed a misapprehension, a disturbance, an uncertainty, a fear, an outright dread, that I have never witnessed in my friends, neighbors and family before.
How did we get to this point?
A quick and easy answer: September 11th brought on today's dread. But wait: are there any other factors?
Let's look at some of the things that have happened since 9/11, things that did not directly, automatically follow from that event. Things that could have turned differently. I ask you to consider, what is the common denominator of them all?
For starters, the dread-alert-system. The last two times the National Terrorism Alert system has gone to the hot color were right before the November elections and right now. Now, with the war on Iraq scheduled for maybe three weeks out, is a tempting times for terrorists, I suppose; but in moments such as these it would be awfully handy as well for the incumbents to use alerts to turn up our fear and outrage. All the better to rally support. Makes you think.
And it's a funny thing about Congress. They won't even discuss the coming war in Iraq. As a body, they have abdicated. They have given the president the throne. Is it just me? I thought a minimum standard of usefulness for a democracy is a legislative body that deliberates on the most important government decisions. For example, things that cost a quarter-trillion dollars. Things like toppling foreign governments by starting unprovoked wars. That kind of stuff. But Congress implemented its own irrelevance - putting itself on a par of voicelessness with wimpy doubting nations, the United Nations, and dissenting American citizens. They removed themselves just prior to the last elections, when, code orange, they voted to let the President do whatever he wants to Iraq whenever he wants, budget unlimited. That abject display occurred precisely while the President was actively deceiving the 638 (?) losers on the Hill, not telling them that North Korea had just laughingly announced to our diplomats that they were breaking their nuclear arms control agreements. Woulda been nice to know.
Those nutty North Koreans. They've now said that they're considering a pre-emptive war to protect themselves against an imminent threat to their self-defense - the threat of a belligerent nation which is moving a wave of new warplanes into place near its borders. Under the new international order, they're well justified by precedent to strike out and defend themselves. After all, the greatest nation on earth, God bless her, has endorsed the idea of pre-emption and implemented it. Really, it works great. It's shown me without a doubt that several centuries of development of the laws of war had clearly gotten off-track, and I'm glad we've now got it straight.
I just wish our blessed nation would set these new markers with a bit more decorum. Secretary of War Donald Rumsfeld recently openly insulted our German allies by saying that Germany, Libya and Cuba were the three countries that were going to be totally unhelpful when we carry this burden of war on our rugged shoulders. Ouch! Never in my life have I heard such a diss of a key ally from an American official. What's up with that?
The icy dread of my friends and loved ones is increased by the universally-held opinion that there will definitely be more terrorism here at home, and that taking out Iraq, for whatever good it will do, will not diminish that expectation even slightly. We're in this for the long haul. Anthrax. Smallpox. Chemical weapons. Suitcase bombs. Warheads. Nuclear. We all know that this will spin out for most of the rest of our lifetimes, right? Like the cold war lasted for half a century, right?
Never before in my lifetime have groups of ordinary women gone outside to take off all their clothes and lie down together to make peace signs with their bodies, or to spell out words, words like "Peace," "No War," "No Bush," in places like New York's Central Park, Texas, Illinois, South Africa, and of course all over California. I know some of the people who organized the first of these strip-offs, it's pretty funny. But has anything like this ever happened in our lifetimes? I ask you, have you ever seen the like? What the hell is going on?
Then there's these truly huge anti-war protests. I've been in two of them, each larger than anything on these streets since the height of the Vietnam War - the last one had an undisputed minimum of 120,000 people at it. And there's not even a war going on yet. What's happening, friends? This is wild stuff!
Well, no wonder. Things are different these days, and it's not just the September 11th effect anymore. Let's return to North Korea for a sec, if you don't mind. Say what you want about that crazy bastard Kim Jong Il and I won't stop you, but we all realize, don't we, that George W. Bush single-handedly created the North Korea crisis? As loathsome and generally annoying as the North Koreans are, they would not have started any of this if Bush had not first, without provocation, labeled them "evil" and spat in their faces at every turn. Was that bit of presidential diplomacy useful to me personally? I don't think so. Oh well. I still think it's really funny that the North Koreans were allowed to deliver ballistic missiles into the Persian Gulf under US Navy escort a couple months ago. Because the missiles were going to our friends the Yemeni dictators, and that's legitimate trade - WTO and all that. Really, it is reassuring that even with all this craziness going on, the arms trade is still a hot economic sector. Because our own economy really depends on it, so it's good to know that we'll always have that pillar to lean on.
And right now we could use an economic injection. Stock market down, what, half a trillion? Two trillion? I've lost count. Not only has the nest egg withered, but what about these deficits we're ringing up? I reckon I'll be paying for them til past the time I retire, 35 years from now. I will always be paying for those blessed deficits. Well, we do get a lot of bang for our borrowed buck, war and all that. Do my part.
But even though the steady arms trade is reassuring, even it can increase our dread in these curious times. Because these crises keep tumbling out so fast that it's really hard to focus on more than two of them at any given time. I mean, at any other time, we might have a moment to consider how we seem to be edging into the next Vietnam down there in Colombia. We're really in deep. They're right there behind Israel and Egypt in foreign aid, and it's all in the form of military goods and services. But we don't really have time to think about how every side in Colombia - the government, the rebels, the right-wing paramilitaries, the business sector, the civil society, everyone - is dealing us our cocaine and, in all likelihood, laundering all of the money through our top banks and blue-chip corporations. We don't have time to think about how we Americans are awash in way more cocaine than ever before. How the drug war is utterly lost and none of us can admit it. We just don't have time to focus on that right now. Let's move on.
I mean, there are things closer to home. Where I live, for example, the plan to protect the great forests of the Sierras is about to be overturned in favor a fairly intensive logging plan - you know, backwoods trees over 30 inches in diameter need to be removed because they’re a heckuva fire danger. Maybe there's something like that brewing in your neck of the woods, too.
But that stuff is nothing, hardly worth my attention. Lately I've been focusing like a laser on more important things. Like the very popular notion in conservative Christian circles that this world ain't worth a plug nickel until God's kingdom arrives - so let's bring it on. You get the concept - you can't get to the kingdom until after the Last Judgment happens, and we'll see the sign of the Last Judgement coming when this poisoned world slides into armageddon. So if the U.S. goes nuclear against its enemies, that's a good sign. I've been thinking about how people who think this way are very, very close to the President. And how we've opened the door wide open to the use of tactical battlefield nuclear weapons.
So I have to admit - it's not just the people around me. I'm feeling pretty uncharacteristically nervous these days myself. Let me give you an example. I'm getting married in June, and people have said to me, we have no idea what the world will look like by then. Well, that's a pretty thought. I wonder, is that what it was like living through World War II, that kind of uncertainty and resignation? Who has lived through such a level of worldwide anxiety and helplessness before?
I ask again, what's the common denominator driving our fear and dread at this moment? Is it not the mind of George W. Bush? I ask you: adding it all up, does his presence at the helm makes you more at ease - or more tight in the chest?
Friends, not all of this can be attributed to September 11th. September 11th is past. The world just keeps on going.