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Paranoia Runs Deep 

Wednesday, Oct 17 2001
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Sniffer dogs. Memorial ribbons. AWACS. Reluctant France.

We assume something bad has happened whenever one of the above topics gets attention in a newspaper, but when they all converge and connect to a single story, we instinctively shudder before historical terrain that is disconsolately vast and unfamiliar. And, as America drifts through an Indian summer of Oktoberfests and canceled Emmy shows, a form of national schizophrenia seems to be spreading, thanks to the serious disconnect between what the government and media tell us we are experiencing, and the evidence of our own senses.

We’re told the country is back to normal, but in Los Angeles children now get patted down and passed through metal detectors before entering Universal Studios, the wait at UPS can last 90 minutes, and some entertainment-industry execs are turning to Amtrak for long-distance travel. Perhaps most ominous, Costco has been running out of toilet paper.

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No wonder that a paranoia bordering on animal panic has infected the American conversation. Never have so many rumors been disseminated so quickly, never have the White House’s words been accepted so uncritically and never have we so eagerly followed its advice to censor ourselves and others.

The anthrax scare plays a big part in this, of course, but even before every spilled line of sugar made us dial 911, we were diving beneath tables whenever a car backfired and half-believing every outlandish Internet lie. What’s so gruesomely funny is that should the anthrax mailings be found to have been sent by an American, the country will probably heave a collective sigh of relief — “It’s all right,” we’ll say, “he’s just one of us!” September 11 now seems a mere prelude to terrorism’s deadliest weapon — ourselves.

Today we are seeing what Americans become when the lights go out, what happens to a protected and privileged people after the trauma of a fall. When fear breaks through the blood-brain barrier of a nation’s psyche, flags are waved, cartoons like “Dilbert” and “The Boondocks” are banished, and the nation’s leading newspapers decide not to analyze the audit of November’s Florida ballots that they commissioned.

We are at war, the president says, and on this point we will take him at his word, keeping, on these pages, a wartime diary of what life in Los Angeles is becoming. Pearl Harbor may not be a perfect analogy for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but something definitely changed last month, for just as December 7 forever wiped the hick grin from America’s face, so did September 11 make us a far less trusting and generous people. The question of how lasting that change will be remains open.

Beverly Hills Digs In

War is hell, and no more so than on the front lines of shopping that extend from Neiman Marcus to Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, stores whose fur departments will be hard hit by the cutoff of karakul-sheep pelts from Afghanistan. Although most karakul fur (also known as broadtail and Persian lamb) is imported from Uzbekistan, the Afghan shortfall is bound to be felt by retailers.

“Only about 4,700 skins were imported last year,” says Keith Kaplan, a spokesman for the L.A.-based Fur Information Council of America. “Karakul has become very popular — you’re seeing a lot of karakul on the runway this year. It’s a very textural fur product that lends itself to many fashion uses, from coats to skirts.”

Not all fashion sacrifices will result from upmarket product shutoff, however. “This was supposed to be a season when high heels were going to be the hot button,” Kaplan adds. “But now flat shoes are taking the spotlight because so many New York businesses have sent out memos to their female employees requesting they wear them in case of evacuations.”

Osama’s Hollywood Make-Over

Now that we’ve learned America’s nemesis is no mere enemy, but an Evil One whose very face satanically appeared in the pyre of the World Trade Center, Osama bin Laden seems less the product of recognizable global politics than some dark colossus quarried from the imagination of an Ian Fleming or Sax Rohmer. A man not only without a country, but without even a program — a tirade without a thesis. But he’s also a man with a beard and turban, a cartoonist’s jackpot of exotic habiliments.

Still, bin Laden could be so much more, according to costume designer Shon LeBlanc: “He reminds me of Jafar, from Walt Disney’s Aladdin — a bad guy, but not really evil.” Part of bin Laden’s lack of visual credibility as an arch villain is his choice of white. “He’s trying to do a couple of things here,” explains the owner of Valentino’s Costumes in Van Nuys. “The white turban is to reflect desert heat, but to Western eyes he’s trying to appear godlike, although when he wears camouflage he reminds me of Castro.”

How could the wily terrorist ramp up the villainy image?

“I’d probably go to black with gold accents,” LeBlanc says. “Our job as costume designers is to tell the audience in the first 20 seconds who a character is, but bin Laden’s playing a lot of different angles: a good guy who looks like a prophet or priest while really being a bad guy. And the watch is a bad fashion accessory — it detracts from his prophetic image.”

Conspiracies R Us

“John F. Kennedy’s Assassination/ Coverup Oklahoma City Bombing/Coverup September 11 Attack . . . ”

The three dots on the hand-lettered sign were an invitation, courtesy of Lyndon LaRouche’s newest presidential campaign, for us to consider the conspiratorial possibilities of September 11. These are heady times for paranoids, and if the last five weeks have been wrenching for the average person, they are days of wine and roses for conspiracy theorists. LaRouche, you will recall, is the demagogue from the Outer Limits who, over a long career, penned a pamphlet titled, “Kissinger, the Politics of Faggotry,” claimed co-authorship of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program, and accused the British monarchy of being behind both international drug trafficking and the Oklahoma City bombing.

One thing, in fact, that seems to unite conspiracy buffs on the left and the right is the reflexive assumption that the people most apparently responsible for the great crimes of the last half-century were actually patsies set up by powerful, wingéd forces operating inside history’s control towers. No wonder that Montez, one of two LaRouche activists manning a literature-laden table in front of the Wilcox Avenue post office, doesn’t believe that Osama bin Laden was behind September’s terror attacks. Well, not “directly responsible” — the real culprits, he says, are “warfare networks located in New York, London and Israel.” Terrorist acts, he explains, “are financed by countries that don’t want world economic cooperation.”

Montez and a fellow LaRouche supporter have been manning their table in the hot sun for a week, while a few blocks away another outfit operates its own September 11 spin in air-conditioned comfort. The Scientology-fronted Citizens Commission on Human Rights’ professed role is to alert the citizenry to the dangers of psychiatry — its big picture windows in the old Yale Electronics store on Sunset Boulevard are dominated by posters depicting a man undergoing painful electric-shock treatment. Since the beginning of this month, CCHR has been trying to associate the September 11 attacks and their aftermath with evil shrinks.

While CCHR’s press releases sound a reasonable tone by denouncing the over-prescribing of psychiatric drugs, they then move to uncertain ground by pointing out that Osama bin Laden’s lieutenant, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is an Egyptian psychiatrist and that African-embassy bomber Ali A. Mohamed is a psychologist. (Jane’s Intelligence Review calls Al-Zawahiri a former pediatrician and nowhere in the growing mountains of reports about al Qaeda is Mohamed described as anything but a former U.S. Army sergeant who trained bin Laden’s militia.) From there, CCHR makes the jump that Al-Zawahiri and Mohamed (who has been in prison since 1998) “are capable of using drugs and other mental techniques to create suicide bombers convinced of the glory of sacrifice and dying.” In other words, the hijackers’ meds made them do it, not Allah.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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