A couple of days after television turned into one vast Anthrax Channel (which didn’t make me feel any better about my head cold), my wife and I retreated into old-fashioned escapism. We watched Peyton Place, the 1957 potboiler about a small New England town bursting with teen pregnancy, rape and incest. Ah, the good old days! At one point, the narrator, Allison MacKenzie, convinces her sexually uptight mother, played by Lana Turner, to let her hold a birthday party at home just like a normal teenager. Mom agrees, but when she comes home to find high school seniors necking, she humiliates her daughter by throwing everybody out. “Now that,” I told my wife, “is bad parenting.”
It all reminded me of the Bush administration, whose behavior in the last week was apparently intended to drive the citizenry schizo. Even as the president ordered us to live normally, the FBI was warning us that something terrible was likely to happen in the next few days, though they had no idea what it might be. As a result, no matter what you did, you always felt either cowardly or at risk, and often both. The warnings unleashed a dread that only grew deeper because it suggested that our leaders, even mad puppeteer Cheney, knew enough to be spooked but not enough to protect us. Indeed, the only Bushistas who seemed completely unfazed were the staffers at The Wall Street Journal, who treated each new threat as an occasion to lead a chorus of that unifying national battle cry: More corporate tax cuts!
Last weekend, America’s fear became explicitly linked to anthrax, and in a sense, this could hardly be more apt. Fear finds an ideal metaphor in the deadly bacteria, which can enter and lay you low without you ever knowing it happened. In a society based on luminous ideas of rationality and control, the notion of a dark contagion striking the body may be even more terrifying than the thought of planes striking high rises. You can refuse to fly, but how can you stop opening mail or breathing the air? Such contagion is the incarnation of our unconscious fears, and the recent run-amok paranoia about bio-chemical weapons has erupted into our lives the way unbearable fantasies once invaded the psyches of Freud’s repressed patients a century ago. With anthrax as with Osama (as he’s known to Muslims worldwide), we’re now confronted with the frightening shadow of the New World Order. Perhaps not coincidentally, the 134 freeway through Glendale was eerily deserted on Sunday afternoon.
Of course, the media’s obsession with anthrax was predictable, especially when it appeared that pooh-bahs like Tom Brokaw (and not just tabloid flying monkeys) had become a prime target. Although you can learn all you need to know about the disease in 10 minutes, the wall-to-wall coverage was based on the apparent assumption that you can ward off evil spirits by talking about them incessantly.
I don’t blame the talking heads for obsessing. Like the rest of us, they’re reeling from the antics of the cabinet’s version of Homer Simpson, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, who fails to grasp that his clumsy lies are not reassuring. Right after the first terrorist attacks, Thompson raced around blustering that our emergency health system could handle any crisis — a view scoffed at by all the experts. When the American Media employee Robert Stevens died of anthrax in Florida, Thompson ä17 rushed to declare that there was no terrorist link and issued the zany claim that the victim had been drinking funny Carolina spring water. Small wonder that a recent episode of Nightline thumped him, in absentia, like one of those bin Laden piñatas you can buy downtown.
Shortly after September 11, Susan Sontag wrote a much-reviled New Yorker piece about how the government-media elite was trying to infantilize the public by refusing to acknowledge, among other things, that the attacks were motivated by things more complicated than the fact the U.S. is good and the terrorists evil. She was correct then, and in the five weeks since, things haven’t gotten much better.
One assumed that Bush and Co. would try to manage the news — this is what governments do. But the media’s also fallen right into line. The networks quickly agreed to censor tapes from al Qaeda (though today’s dish-savvy terrorist surely prefers Al Jazeera to The Capital Gang), and both American print and TV have been slack about covering the Afghanistan war: I first learned that the bombing had flattened a civilian village, possibly killing 100, from The Observer in London — nearly a day before the news hit American television.
On Politically Incorrect, a black conservative named Darlene Kennedy suggested that it bordered on “anti-Americanism” for collegiate peace marchers to hug each other and sing John Lennon songs. (To his credit, host Bill Maher rebuked her for trying to define what’s American.) Over at Newsweek, the once-sharp Jonathan Alter (did losing all that weight shrink his brain?) launched an assault on the left, as if this impotent minority were somehow frog-marching the country toward capitulation rather than following its time-honored practice of devouring each other like spiders in a jar. But lest there be any confusion: The woman sitting at Bush’s side in all those photographs is Condoleezza Rice, not Alice Walker.
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 something from 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.