No TV-news graphic better captures our Ptolemaic view of history than ”America’s New War,“ three words that relegate the rest of the world to the periphery of the Pentagon‘s night-vision goggles. ”America’s Newest War“ might be more to the point, but such an advertising-tinged slogan (”Now With Aloe!“) loses the first expression‘s double-entendre acknowledgment that America is not just fighting another war, but a new kind of war. It’s a war obsessed with keeping the number of American casualties to those of an average Labor Day weekend and whose chief underpinnings are the awesome ”softening-up“ tonnage of ordnance we have rained down upon the Taliban, and our deputization of the Northern Alliance to fight our first battles.
This new warfare has worked very well: The dispatch of the fleet to the Arabian Sea and the Fed-Exing of a few hundred Marines to Afghanistan has produced the warrior imagery the administration needs to rally support, while the U.S.‘s main combat dangers so far have been largely ergonomic ones, at least as far as its bomber pilots and electronic-battlefield planners are concerned. Today, as George Orwell, describing the future in the present tense of 1984, wrote, ”War involves very small numbers of people, mostly highly trained specialists, and causes comparatively few casualties. The fighting, when there is any, takes place on the vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average man can only guess at.“
It’s not surprising, then, that in this new stealth war-scape the first American casualty was not a soldier but a CIA agent, or that the first real engagement our troops fought was not to battle an infantry but to quell a prison riot that our proxy army had lost control of — marking, as it were, a turning point where the United States has gone from being the policeman of the world to its prison guard.
Yet there have also been civilian victories too small to earn a TV-news graphic. Last week, a young postal worker at Hollywood‘s Cherokee Avenue station was not wearing the latex gloves that had been part of his uniform since the scope of the anthrax danger first became known. When asked how long the station had been gloveless, the man queried a colleague and got the reply, ”One week!“ The man turned to his customer at the counter, broke into a broad, proud smile and softly repeated the message: ”S’been about a week.“ For one triumphant moment it seemed that the world had returned to normal.
”Nobody knows if our Constitution still exists — if we have Bush law instead of American law.“
Ramona Ripston, the venerable executive director of the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, has never seen anything quite like the assault being waged against Americans‘ fundamental guarantees of free expression and privacy. This siege reached a new and unsettling level last month when the president, no doubt drawing on his own rich experiences with the death penalty, authorized the formation of secret military tribunals empowered to administer capital punishment to whichever foreigners are hauled before their Solomonic courts.
”It’s a wholesale attack on the Constitution,“ Ripston told the Weekly by phone. ”This administration doesn‘t have the same feeling about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that we do. All they care about is accruing power and unleashing the FBI and CIA — this is what they have always wanted to do.“
Like many others, on both the left and right, Ripston acknowledges the very real concerns about terrorism in the wake of September 11, but worries about intrusive laws that, like unexploded land mines, will remain buried beneath the legal topsoil long after the war in Afghanistan has ended. Perhaps more ominously, not even the ACLU is completely certain what the government is up to, since after the passage of the USA-PATRIOT Act executive decrees further limiting our freedoms began flying out of the White House and Justice Department like Frisbees.
”Last week John Ashcroft announced that over a thousand people have been detained,“ Ripston said. ”The ACLU has filed Freedom of Information Act requests seeking information about who is being detained and if they are seeing lawyers, but there’s been no reply. Ashcroft said nobody has brought any litigation to challenge the military tribunals, but the problem is that nobody knows exactly what the rules for these are. Bush said they‘re not going to release the names of the people in custody because it would ’violate their privacy.‘ That argument is absolutely absurd — in any criminal investigation the names of arrestees always publicly appear in the press.“
Besides filing its FOIA requests, the ACLU has been operating an information hot line for Muslims and Arab-Americans who have been targeted for discrimination, and has sent lawyers to the Omar ibn Al-Khattab mosque on Vermont Avenue to talk to people about their rights. But with few in Congress willing to challenge the president, and with even such civil libertarians as Floyd Abrams, Lawrence Tribe and Alan Dershowitz hopping on the war wagon to justify the new anti-democratic measures, Ripston and her colleagues see scant public movement opposing the clampdown.
”We’ve just begun to think about demonstrations and teach-ins to see just how many people are really concerned,“ she said. ”There was a time when people would be marching in the streets about this, but the public at large are not really outraged about it. It‘s easy to support rights and freedom when you don’t feel attacked. The challenge is to fight for them when you are attacked.“
Among the lesser-known charity victims of September 11 have been the more exotic animal shelters.
”We haven‘t received one donation after September 11,“ Francoise Koster of the Villa Lobos Rescue Center recently told the Weekly. Among other things, her Agua Dulce–based group, which operates a 10-acre care facility in the high desert, takes abused and abandoned pit bulls from shelters and gives them to at-risk teenagers in probation camps. Villa Lobos has suffered the same abrupt money shortfall as Tujunga’s Wildlife Waystation, the 160-acre spread founded by Martine Colette in 1976 and which is home to a wide array of large animals, including wolves, lions, leopards, bears and baboons.
”In three months we have been at between 40 and 45 percent of our normal funding,“ Colette said. ”I believe all animal charities are affected — with the bigger organizers that get a lot of their money from the East Coast more affected than smaller local ones.“
(Melinda Lopez, customer- service manager of the Glendale Humane Society, confirms that, while her shelter experienced a general falloff in its dealings with the public during the month following September 11, overall donations and adoptions are now back to normal.)
Colette maintains that the Waystation‘s recent battles with L.A. County over fire and safety issues have had nothing to do with its funding problems, claiming that longtime supporters had still been making donations up until the terrorist attacks. Despite the clear connection between September 11 and the evaporation of donations, Colette doesn’t know precisely why Waystation donors have allowed the attacks to influence their support. ”It‘s a little tacky to ask,“ she said.