Still, none of this was as daunting as what came from administration hardliners. On a PBS special, Looking for Answers, reporter Lowell Bergman talked to various Middle Easterners who offered political reasons why many ordinary Muslims might feel some sympathy with Osama. Then he interviewed U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a balding blob of scowls who looked like Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore after a quarter century of Twinkies. When Bergman asked how he would respond to the political arguments of those in the Middle East, Armitage growled, “You’re playing ball in their court. Don’t play ball in their court.”
Meaning, there could be no discussion. Which is essentially the same message President Bush sent to the Taliban on Sunday.
Yes, I know it’s infuriating that the people who insist on proof that Osama’s behind the attacks are the same ones who idolize him because he pulled them off. But the problem is that we’re in a PR war, and the whole world, Muslim and otherwise, is waiting to see if America loves the smell of napalm in the morning. They watch us bomb a desperately poor country that’s suffered two decades of misery. They watch us air-drop foil-wrapped slabs of peanut butter that Afghans don’t know what to do with (and not even enough of those). And they watch cheap propaganda moves like Bush’s appeal for American children to send a buck to help the kids of Afghanistan. If we were really serious about helping, Congress could simply rescind Bush’s ongoing tax cuts and feed the starving Afghans for far less than 1 percent of the newfound money.
Much of the world is waiting for us to acknowledge that we’ve learned somethingfrom the terrorist attacks. Although things keep getting crazier in Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia, the vast majority of Muslims don’t want the U.S. destroyed. But they do want our leaders to shake off the arrogant certainty that we embody only goodness, to question our self-serving clichés that what’s good for American prosperity will automatically make other countries prosperous, too. It’s too little to insist that we’re not making war on Islam. Bush must be willing to address the political issues that cause us trouble — everything from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia to the inundation of the globe with our pop culture. This isn’t appeasement, it’s diplomacy. And it won’t be enough for Bush to echo his father’s feckless words about those suffering from the early-’90s recession (“Message: I care”). He’ll have to extend a hand. As the Kennedy brothers discovered during the Cuban missile crisis, you must offer your enemies a way to save face in negotiations — even if you feel completely in the right.
Bush will also have to start talking to us like adults. When asked what sacrifice he wanted Americans to make, he answered that we were already making it, which is rather like telling your children they will surely be Olympic champions if they continue exercising 15 minutes a day. The truth is, the sacrifices are just beginning. We’ll have to sacrifice our sense of being safe in public places. We’ll have to sacrifice our addiction to cheap oil and thirsty SUVs. (Last week, the L.A. Times, without even mentioning the war, ran an article on how the 2002 cars are getting worse mileage than last year’s.) We will be taxed billions more to pay for security, rebuild emergency rooms we’ve underfunded for two decades and bankroll expensive military incursions (not to mention staggeringly expensive boondoggles like missile defense). And we’ll have to start sharing our wealth with countries pulsing with the young, poor and reckless. Every day keeps reminding us that we’re not immune to their rage.