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A Small Universe of People

Contrary to Hiram Johnson’s famous aphorism, the first casualty of war is not truth but tourism. Hotels from Cancun to County Cork sit half empty, and here in the States a road trip now means picking up a video and pizza. Airline travel is down and the hardy souls who do fly face excruciatingly long waits as well as the evacuation of entire airports whenever a pair of nail clippers falls out of someone‘s luggage. We’re told not to grumble but instead to draw inspiration from the Israelis‘ steely acceptance of draconian security measures -- hardly encouraging advice since, among other things, it ignores the fact that America is not a country holding down a captive population of foreigners in its midst, nor one whose own tourism minister has been assassinated by the same.

Local TV news is nevertheless full of images of tired travelers standing in long lines at LAX, segments that invariably end with some harried mother sighing, “The wait’s worth it because we know we‘ll be safe.” It can’t be proved, but there is a suspicion that such programs edit out footage of the occasional tourist who shouts, “Dude! This security hassle is totally bogus -- we shoulda had this before September 11! What good‘s it doing now, when bin Laden’s toast?”

There has been another casualty in the wake of September 11, but it‘s not one that TV spends much team coverage on. The victim here is the Bill of Rights and our historic guarantees of privacy, which, unless defended, will also be toast, thanks to John Ashcroft, Tom Ridge and other no-neck protectors of the fatherland. On October 30 the attorney general unilaterally granted himself the power to intercept phone calls and mail between lawyers and their clients -- a virtual declaration of war against the Sixth Amendment. In the new spirit of controlled hysteria, the Department of Justice announced Ashcroft’s diktat through a simple press release. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, DOJ spokeswoman Mindy Tucker justified the lack of a media conference by saying, “It‘s a procedural change and it affects such a small universe of people.”

Other freedoms fell under attack through the passage of the USA-PATRIOT Act, whose sneak-and-peek provisions scuttle Fourth Amendment rights against search and seizure (the Feds can now enter your home without serving you a search warrant if you are not in), and which allows local law-enforcement agencies to share information with the Pentagon and spy organizations like the FBI and CIA -- and, of course, to round up and indefinitely detain non-citizens without filing charges against them. Just what kind of universe Americans think they belong to remains to be seen -- will we go kicking and screaming into that good night or just be thankful to be safe?

Business Solutions for the Active Terrorist, by Econocon. Sample titles by the Euro-noise group, which released this album early this year: “Stock Exchange Terror,” “Extermination Strategy,” “Massmurder AB.”

“Terrorism is the cheapest word in the English language, one that’s used interchangeably with ‘devil’ to end all debates. They call us ‘devils’ and we call them ‘evil’ -- all we‘ve done is taken the ’d‘ off their word -- that’s our concession to modernism.” Donald Freed, L.A. dean of contrarians and professor emeritus of alternative history, was speaking of the propaganda war between Islamic extremists and the White House. Best known as a playwright (American Iliad), novelist (Executive Action) and screenwriter (Secret Honor), Freed wears controversy like silk pajamas, having published books disputing the official version of the truth on issues ranging from JFK‘s assassination to the Symbionese Liberation Army to the Nicole Simpson--Ronald Goldman murders. What rattles him today is the sanctimonious manipulation of September 11 by the Bush White House and its supporters from past administrations.

“The rehabilitation of people like John Negroponte on the backs of the people who suffered in New York is so shameful,” he told the Weekly, referring to the Senate’s recent white-ballot confirmation of the Reagan apparatchik as America‘s U.N. ambassador. “The opportunism of these hardliners, revanchists and hawks from Vietnam and Honduras is a sad thing to watch day by day. Why would they really care about the suffering of New Yorkers when they don’t care about what happened in El Salvador and Nicaragua?”

Freed, who also teaches writing at USC and the Lost Studio Theater, has been told that film projects he was working on have been canceled because of September 11, but is far more alarmed by the White House‘s improvised foreign policy and where it might lead. “Civilization began in Iraq and will, I wager, end there.” Nor is Freed much impressed by the ballyhooed rise of G.W. Bush’s stature as a statesman, even in the eyes of his opponents:

“He looks taller when you‘re on your knees.”

Perhaps nothing signals home-front battle fatigue better than the telltale T-shirts for sale along the Venice Boardwalk. Two-and-a-half months after the terrorist attacks, patriotic T-shirts have not progressed in design beyond three simple white shirts featuring the NYC firefighters raising Old Glory above the WTC rubble, or some image representing the Twin Towers (“Never Forget”), and one with a cross hairs and jet bombers superimposed over Osama bin Laden’s face (“America Says Fuck You”). Nowhere are there black T-shirts pumped with more complex designs -- ones, say, that draw on Harley-Davidson iconic fantasias of swirling flags, bald eagles and chrome-looking lettering.

Worse, the ones that are available don‘t seem to be selling: Some vendors offer them three for $9.99, yet no pedestrians, rollerbladers or skateboarders were wearing them. One man worked a table fairly buckling with the weight of merchandise that included desk flags, Old Glory decals, “Don’t Mess With America” T-shirts, FDNY caps and red-white-and-blue matches. He told the Weekly that some of the money went to the Red Cross, and displayed a number of official-looking vendor-identification tags. “We set up in gas stations or in front of a Ralphs for three days, then move on,” he said.

How was business this Saturday afternoon?

“Slow,” he said, deflated. Perhaps he hadn‘t heard of the old three-for-$9.99 strategy.


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