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Patricia J. Williams

Columnist

Patricia J. Williams is a graduate of Wellesley College and Harvard Law School. She began her career practicing law as a consumer advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and as a Deputy City Attorney for the City of Los Angeles. Upon leaving practice, she served on the faculties of the University of Wisconsin School of Law, Harvard University Women’s Studies Program, and CUNY Law School at Queen’s College. Since 1992, she has been the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University School of Law.

She is the recipient of honorary doctorates from Northeastern University School of Law, John Jay College of the City University of New York, the College of Wooster, Smith College, and Old Dominion University. She has received numerous awards, including from from her alma maters—an Outstanding Alumna Award from Latin School in Boston, an Alumnae Achievement Award from Wellesley College, and a Graduate Society Medal from Harvard.

Her book The Alchemy of Race and Rights was named one of the twenty-five best books of 1991 by the Voice Literary Supplement; one of the “feminist classics of the last twenty years” that “literally changed women’s lives” by Ms. magazine; and one of the ten best non-fiction books of the decade by Amazon.com. Other books include The Rooster’s Egg (Harvard Press, 1995), Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1998), and Open House: On Family, Food, Piano Lessons, and The Search for a Room of My Own (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2004).

Professor Williams has appeared on radio and television shows around the world, and in 1997 delivered the annual Reith Lectures for the BBC, Radio Four. She has appeared in a number of documentary films, including “That Rush!” which she wrote and narrated. Directed by British film-maker Isaac Julien, this short study of American talk show hosts was featured as part of an installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London.

She has held fellowships at the School of Criticism and Theory at Dartmouth, the Humanities Research Institute of the University of California at Irvine, the Institute for Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. In 2000, she was named a MacArthur fellow.


  • Drug War and Drug Policy March 7, 2002

    Virtual Reality

    In my last column, I mentioned that most actual drug users are young white people, even though most of those "profiled" as drug users are people of color. Indeed, according to the Sentencing Project, 72 percent of all illegal drug users are white.

    But profiling is further vexed by the eternal question of how one determines who is white and who is not. In today's diasporic world, racial identity or "whiteness" is less determined by lines of "blood" or descent than it once was in certain Southern states. Today, whiteness is more dominantly a matter of appearance, based on malleable aesthetic trends.

    This point--the malleability of how we assign "race" to people--is certainly illustrated by the example of Noelle Bush, to whom I referred as white. I received much mail insisting that she is not in fact white but Latina "because her mother is." It's an interesting question, this: the potential tension between "actual" and actuarial determinations of race. But first, let us agree that although there is no biological reality of race, the force of race is a powerful if constantly negotiated sociocultural construction, and has been since colonial times. Second, allow me to sidestep for now the complex anthropology of whether being Latina is determined matrilineally, thus canceling out her conspicuous Puritan patrimony. Third, let us also agree that recent migrations from Latin America have increasingly complicated national demographics as historically inflected by Jim Crow laws. And so, while "Latina" seems to be used as a racial category when it comes to most compilations of criminal justice statistics (meaning brown people from south of the border, of mixed Spanish, African and Native American descent), the reality is that not all Latinos are people of color. Indeed, "Latino" is perhaps more accurately understood as a broad linguistic, regional and cultural category rather than a racial one.

    In any event, I called Ms. Bush white because, in photographs, that's what she looked like to me, admittedly through all the filters of my particular geographic and generational prism. At the same time, a number of letters pointed out that Noelle Bush and her brother are the grandchildren whom George Bush the Elder once described as "the little brown ones." This underscores the essential irrationality of profiling by appearance alone: If old George and I (just let your imagination wander here) were working as airport screeners, side by side and in accordance with the logic of most racially based profiling guidelines, he'd have stopped her, and I'd have waved her through. "But she's really..." has no fixed meaning in such profiling. This is not a new aspect of racial scrutiny; in generations past, perhaps, Noelle Bush's status might have been familiar as that of Tragic Mulatta. In today's more global context, I re-examine her picture and note how she resembles supermodel Christy Turlington--herself endlessly exploited for the vaguely "exotic" racial ambiguity that her mother's Ecuadorean "blood" supposedly lends her. But however one may or may not want to classify Ms. Bush, the existence of a confused limbo of those who can "pass" does not alter the fact that once classified as "suspect," as are too many of the unambiguously dark-skinned, the license of heightened investigation significantly colors the fundamental counterpresumption of innocent until proven guilty.

    Let me shift topics here. One striking feature of virtually all the letters I received was the application of the word "smug" to my description of "Governor Jeb Bush's poor daughter, Noelle." This attribution was attended by detailed accusations, all starting with the word "impliedly." I impliedly took delight in the Bush family's suffering. I impliedly reveled in her getting what she deserved. I impliedly used the daughter to make fun of the father.

    A little clarification is perhaps in order. When I said "poor Noelle," I meant it, with no irony attached. Whether fueled by biological predisposition or depression, substance abuse knows no political, class or ethnic boundary. Poor Prince Harry, poor Betty Ford, poor Robert Downey Jr., poor not-a-few Kennedys. I don't find a single bit of enjoyment in what is clearly a pervasive modern crisis. If one must project, let me provide some guidance. I see our crisis of drug dependency as a medical or mental health issue rather than a criminal cause. This stance obviously places me at odds with the Prohibition-era policies of Jeb and both Georges. It doesn't mean I doubt that Governor Bush is less desperately concerned about the fate of his daughter than any other father. He believes the war on drugs is to the greater good; I think it woefully misguided. Asserting such disagreement about the efficacy of policy is democratic, not inherently disrespectful.

    I also agree with those who counsel against publishing the unruly actions of children, whether their parents happen to be in the limelight or not. I believe minors, defendants or witnesses, deserve protection from the media. But Noelle Bush is well over 21, has had five traffic violations, seven speeding tickets and three car crashes and was convicted of impersonating a doctor in order to fraudulently obtain a prescription. The actions of adults who are brought before the criminal justice system are appropriately the subject of public record. Noelle Bush was given probation and referred to a drug treatment center. Who's to say if that's what she "deserved," but most likely it's what she, and so many others like her, needs. Where her example might be of continuing public interest is in contrasting her fate with that of poorer women, who, if convicted of drug offenses, are ineligible for welfare benefits for life. And in a case recently before the Supreme Court, an elderly woman whose retarded granddaughter smoked a joint three blocks away from her house was evicted from public housing based on her "relation" to drug use or sale. If such rules were applied across the socioeconomic spectrum, we'd have to ask Jeb Bush to give up the governor's mansion. It is, after all, public housing. I know--some of you will be affixing meanspirited, giggling gratuity to that image, but my point is rather the sad absurdity of it.

    In all this, the bottom-line concern is whether fundamental fairness remains the measure of how we treat anyone--rich or poor, white or Latino, anonymous minor or poor Noelle.

    Patricia J. Williams

  • Society February 21, 2002

    Better Safe…?

    In my last column, I called the expansion of profiling that has occurred since September 11 "equal opportunity." I meant it ironically, but a surprising number of people took me literally. So I want to make clear that I don't consider this upgraded frisking any kind of opportunity, nor do I think that its expansion is really the same as equality. I am also aware, as was pointed out to me, that there are people in the world who might appreciate a good cavity search, confident that this is all for their benefit. And while I understand that we have all become subject to "nothing more than" the same ministrations that visitors to maximum security prisoners go through, the fact that some think this is the best of all possible worlds strikes me as fatuous.

    The billions of dollars currently being pumped into police and surveillance budgets represent an unprecedented investment in a heavily patrolled world. Such an extraordinary buildup will inevitably exacerbate questions about the limits of state force; it will require the greatest vigilance to prevent our turning into not just a police state but one big global military base. Specific categories of us will probably continue to bear a special burden--black women in airports are, according to some figures, searched more than anyone else because I, as Typical Black Everywoman, meet the description of a drug courier better than you--as in You, profiled Nation reader and Typical Ungendered White Person.

    Blacks and Latinos are the profiled shape of the "war on drugs," even though the majority of actual drug abusers are young white people like Governor Jeb Bush's poor daughter, Noelle. The "war on terror" promises to be even more sweeping. For the time being, our new international, militarized police force has increased its scrutiny, from black women in airports and black men in cars, to include Middle Eastern men anywhere, Asian people who look vaguely Filipino, as well as ample Minnesota housewives actually armed with sets of silver fondue forks.

    Is this better or worse? I think it's a misuse of data, often creating a false sense of security. The kind of profiling that seems to inform the majority of stops and searches is usually based on statistical relations so vague as to be useless. Such profiling, premised on diffuse probabilities about looks and dress, ethnicity or nationality, class or educational status, begs for more analysis. Otherwise it can be defeated on the one hand by guards and gatekeepers whose interpretation of looks or class status is skewed by selective and subjective prejudice and on the other hand by travelers committed to the art of disguise.

    The attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were carried out by deeply rational and well-trained operatives whose tactics defied easy profiling. They looked--and were--well educated; they dressed professionally. The fact that the FBI actually had information that some of them had been involved in terrorist networks counted less in the real world than that they looked good. After all, it is true that in a very large sense sleek, well-dressed professionals commit fewer crimes than the hungry, grumpy lower classes. I have this painful recurring dream of the security guards at Logan on September 11, carelessly waving all eighteen men through, while strip searching long lines of black women having bad hair days.

    I worry that we're doing the same thing with shoes: Richard Reid was able to board an airplane because he played against the expectation embedded in profiles. He looked odd enough to have been stopped and questioned, but ultimately looks had little to do with what made him dangerous. Although they were suspicious, security officials did not discover his criminal record, surely better evidence of his propensities than whether he wore a ponytail. He was finally allowed on board; he was a British citizen, and British citizens were not the subject of any profile. They searched his bag but not his shoes, because shoes were not at that point the subject of any profile. Now that we know thick-soled sneakers can be turned into weapons of mass destruction, airports spend a lot of time removing and examining them. It's likely to catch copycats, I suppose, which is not a problem to be ignored, but does anyone really believe that Al Qaeda would use shoes again? In other words, while there is, after Richard Reid, a marginal relation between shoes and bombs, the actual odds of it ever happening precisely like that again are slim to nonexistent. Indeed, what distinguishes professional operatives who calculatedly sow terror is that they take the time to play against type.

    So I worry when I hear about plans to expand profiling as we now seem to practice it. I worry when I hear about plans to have our thumb prints taken, our irises scanned, our DNA plotted. How can we be putting all this work into appearances when appearances bear no necessary relation to intent? The risk of this is not just one of diminished dignity or privacy. The problem ought to have been made clear to us in the wake of "accidents" like Amadou Diallo. The problem ought to be apparent in recent news stories about the CIA having flown an unmanned surveillance craft over a street in Afghanistan. It had a night vision camera on it that caught in its scope a group of men conversing who fit a profile because one of their number was unusually tall, as is Osama bin Laden. After some consultation at the remote site where the CIA officers and their telemonitors were located, the CIA decided to bomb the group. The men were killed, but as of this writing, the CIA admits it still doesn't know who the men were. Civilians on the ground claimed that the men were townspeople scavenging for scrap metal.

    This death by actuary. This profiled guilt. This trial by night vision drone. Our superlative technology permits us to listen, scan, survey and X-ray anybody and everybody in the world. But a sea of data alone won't help us if there is no higher wisdom in the final analysis. Good "intelligence" means more than eyes and ears--there must be a heart and a brain, or we will never achieve the global stability we all so desperately desire.

    Patricia J. Williams

  • National Security February 7, 2002

    Bad Hair Day

    We have reached the point that the idea of liberty, an idea relatively recent and new, is already in the process of fading from our consciences and our standards of morality, the point that neoliberal globalization is in the process of assuming its opposite: that of a global police state, of a terror of security. Deregulation has ended in maximum security, in a level of restriction and constraint equivalent to that found in fundamentalist societies.
    --Jean Baudrillard, "L'Esprit du Terrorisme,"
    reprinted in Harper's Magazine, February 2002

    Dear Editor,

    Sorry to have missed my column deadline. I got delayed at the airport. I was intending to write about the progress of the war on war. I wanted to write about how similar are the wars of words being used in the war on terrorism, the war on crime, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on illiteracy and the war on hunger. I had intended to explore the ramifications of terms like "axis of evil," "triumvirate of terror," "parasites" and the concept of "taking no prisoners" (just detainees).

    If I hadn't been delayed, I meant to talk about the war stories we're telling ourselves. That the Geneva Conventions aren't such a big thing. There's just no time for Miranda rights. Civil rights are just not needed. Got to break a few rules to enforce the law.

    I was thinking that maybe I am just behind the times. While I wasn't looking, we moved on to less law, more New World Order. It's sort of a military order, as it turns out. It's a religious order too, what with our taxes becoming tithes for Faith Based Initiatives, Soldiers of Fortune and born-again Armies of Compassion.

    But order it is, and you've got to admit, an ordered society is a nice and tidy one. Enemies are secretly and sanitarily disposed of. The media are controlled to provide only uplifting images of clean conquest and happy, grateful multitudes. Noisy protesters are swept into neat piles, like leaves. The government encourages village snoops and urban gossips to volunteer their infinite time and darkest thoughts as a way of keeping the rest of us in line. And I don't know much about Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, but you've got to say this for him: that bias-cut green silk tunic worn over relaxed-fit, wool/linen blend trousers has become "le must" of the fashion world. No wonder Bush is up for that Nobel Peace Prize.

    Anyway, that's what I was going to write about, but I didn't have time because I had to take a flight to Philadelphia and I was late because the old man who lives on the next block put his head in my car window as I was about to drive off and he wouldn't remove it while he told me all about how he's our new neighborhood volunteer-for-victory monitor or some such, and he wanted to take an inventory right there and then of any supplies I might have in my house that would be useful in case of national emergency. Any gas masks? Generators? Cell phones? Cudgels? Axes? Prescription drugs?

    "Band-Aids," I offered politely. "And could we possibly do this another time?"

    "How many people live in your house?" he persisted. "And didn't I see you pushing a baby carriage the other day?"

    "Not in many years," I say.

    "But I'm sure it was you," he pressed. At that instant I was visited by a very clear image of him on the witness stand. He is white-haired and gentle-eyed, firm-voiced and credible. Even I wanted to believe him so much that I forgot that I had not yet been charged with anything.

    When I finally got to the airport I went through the abasements of security, a ritual cleansing of the sort practiced at maximum security prisons: I removed my shoes. I took off my coat. I held out my arms. A guard in a rakish blue beret bestowed apologies like a rain of blessings as she wanded my armpits. "You have an underwire in your bra?" she asked. "You mind if I feel?"

    It is hard to be responsive to such a prayer with any degree of grace. It is ceremonial, I know, a warding off of strip-search hell. "Not at all," I intoned, as though singing in Latin.

    Another agent was going through my bags. He removed my nail clippers from the intimacy of my makeup pouch and discarded them in a large vat filled with hundreds of nail clippers. A proper sacrifice, I think. I imagine they will distribute them to the poor.

    The agent put on rubber gloves and opened my thermos and swirled the coffee around. He removed the contents of my purse and spread it out. When he picked up my leatherbound diary and flipped slowly through the pages, a balloon of irreligiosity exploded at the back of my head, and I could feel the hair rise up, as it does sometimes, getting all militant despite my best prostrations of mousse.

    "My diary?" I said as evenly as I could. "This is getting like the old Soviet Union."

    "So, you visited the Soviet Union...?" he asked, a glinty new interest hardening what had been his prior languor.

    Anyway, I finally got to where I was going. And on my way back from Philadelphia, I wasn't searched at all. They stopped the woman just in front of me, though, and there she stood, shoeless and coatless, with the tampons from her purse emptied upon the altar of a plastic tray. Once on the plane, she and I commiserated, and then the oddest thing happened. Others around us joined in about how invaded and humiliated they felt when searched. The conversation spread across the aisle, then to the seat in front, the row in back. It grew to about five rows of people, all angry at the overseers, all suspicious, all disgruntled and afraid. I was, I admit, strangely relieved to see that we were not only black or brown; we were men and women, white and Asian, young kids, old designer suits. There was a weird, sad kind of unity in our vulnerability, this helplessness of ours. But there was a scary emotional edge to the complaining, a kind of heresy that flickered through it too. What a baffled little coterie we were. Equal opportunity at last.

    Anyway, dear editor, that, in short, is why this is not a column. I was having a really bad hair day.

    Patricia J. Williams

  • Activism January 24, 2002

    The Beloved Community

    In this most emotionally charged of times, I think that many of the moral issues we face are overlaid by an oft-expressed tension between the need for security and the full protections of human rights. It is always expressed as a tension, freedom as opposed to security. It is a false dichotomy but understandable, given how afraid we all are. And so we limit our sights to the need for good policy, good intelligence and strong, democratically inclined, diplomatically gifted leaders.

    But I am also a lawyer, and a child of the civil rights era, which was, a bit like these times, a dangerous time, troubled by terrorizing outlaw behavior, a violent time. Yet what guided us, black and white, men and women, minority and majority, through that time was a determined appeal and, ultimately, adherence to principles of morality, justice and law. Dr. King's appeal to a transformative progressive society, to what he referred to as The Beloved Community, was of course an overtly theological argument, grounded in a love of all humanity. But it was also a metaphor, and that metaphor was grounded in a legal case, in a series of legal cases that held steadfastly to notions of fairness, equality and due process of law. The legal and political triumphs of the civil rights era remain a monument to America's best ideals.

    Those times too were fraught with passion and grief. There were those who thought that Dr. King's work for racial equality was too radical, too deeply subversive, or unpatriotic. There were those who thought his opposition to American policy in Vietnam merited the response Love it or leave it. Similarly, there are those who have taken George W. Bush's oft-repeated statement--originally a warning to Iraq, as I recall--of "you're either with us or against us" and applied it broadly and inappropriately to men and women of conscience who express their concern that international conventions and norms of human rights be scrupulously applied in the battle against Al Qaeda.

    Trust, don't ask, some have said. Say something positive or shut up. I worry a lot about the predominance of flat "either-or" dualisms that by their very syntax eliminate the middle ground so necessary to political debate. Love it or leave it. But Dr. King loved his country, and there was no "or" about it. He did not leave America but worked to impart a legacy that changed it and the world for the better. He appealed to a society that is committed to unity and yet vaunts individual freedom, including the freedom to dissent.

    These tensions are often placed like roadblocks: security versus freedom, community versus dissent. That pervasive sense of opposition was a challenge for Americans in Dr. King's time, and it is a challenge for Americans now. And because the United States is a model others copy as well as a global force to be reckoned with, the citizens of the world are, one by one, having to resolve these tensions as well. As Dr. King said, "Civil rights"--or human rights I think he would add in today's global context--"civil rights is an eternal moral issue..."

    Whatever the issue, whatever the time, we must resist a mindset that defines those who are "with us" as those who accept all policies as untouchable, all military action as automatically legitimate, all criticism as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Otherwise we consign people who are engaged in the essence of democratic debate to the conceptual dustbin of those who are "against us." You're either on board as a team player or (according to the last few days of the New York Post alone) you're a brainless, overintellectualizing, group-thinking, anarchist, socialist, communist, stalinist, nihilistic, solipsistic, atheistic, politically correct, race-card-playing feminazi crackpot.

    I sometimes wonder if we've forgotten who the enemy is.

    But it is not unpatriotic to question and argue about our public policy; it's a duty of citizenship. It is not disrespectful to the Republic to ask, when our Defense Secretary says the men held in Guantánamo Bay are receiving better treatment than the Taliban ever gave their prisoners, what that means precisely. That they have not yet been beheaded? Or that the norms of the Geneva Convention and the Constitution are being rigorously observed?

    I worry too about the degree to which we keep referring to these enemies as The Evil Ones or The Bad Guys--such odd terms, as though our leaders were speaking to very young children. By this, Al Qaeda is placed in an almost biblical narrative, ready to be smote and cast out. In this model, giving The Evil Ones so mundane a forum as a trial is literally "courting" the devil. While this sort of embedded language has certainly galvanized the people in a time of great crisis, I don't believe it's a useful long-term model for a democratic secular government trying to fight real political foes, particularly stateless enemies who are religious zealots in their own right. This sort of narrative obscures the adult reality that they are enemies, not viruses. They are humans, not demons. They are criminals, not satanic extraterrestrials. They may indeed be our New Age Goebbelses and Goerings, but we did not put Nazi war criminals in cages. We brought them to justice.

    Given all this we will need all the thoughtful voices we can get to help our beleaguered leaders figure out a world that is growing more mobile, more diasporic, more riven by racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism (and I mean anti-Semitism in the broad sense of prejudice against all Semitic peoples, including Jews, Arabs and some Asians), religious intolerance, economic disparity and struggles for land. Indeed, recent tensions are such that some are calling this a "clash of civilizations." This too is something we should be wary of. Organized crime syndicates--whether the Ku Klux Klan in the civil rights era or Al Qaeda now--do not a civilization make.

    As we move into Black History Month, it is good to remember that Dr. King's message was far more complex than the naïve rosiness to which he's often reduced. He insisted on equal protection even for those we do not like. He insisted on due process of law even for those whom we have reason to fear. And he demanded that we respect the humanity even of those we despise.

    Patricia J. Williams

  • Religion December 20, 2001

    Begging to Disagree

    In these heated times, what does the word 'fundamentalist' mean? Well, it all depends on whom you ask.

    Patricia J. Williams

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  • Society December 7, 2001

    More Juice?

    What plagued the O.J. Simpson trial—corruption, malfeasance and a breakdown of the rule of law—is exactly what the 'war on terror' is achieving in its blind quest to hold Bin Laden to account.

    Patricia J. Williams

  • Law November 21, 2001

    Disorder in the Court

    George W. Bush wants to try terror suspects in in secret military courts. Guilt is presumed over innocence.

    Patricia J. Williams

  • Covert Ops November 8, 2001

    By Any Means Necessary

    We can't allow fear to erode commitment to our constitutional liberties.

    Patricia J. Williams

  • Politics October 25, 2001

    Homeland Insecurity

    It is hard to write a column like this under the present circumstances. It is hard to comment on what is happening in the world if the military regulates everything. And yet it is impossible not to write about this moment when civil rights and liberties seem under attack from both within and without. "Civil libertarians should not become Luddites," says Alan Dershowitz, who spent most of the past decade railing against identity politics. These days, he's suggesting that we loosen up and get national identity cards. Sure it's been used by repressive regimes the world over, he admits, but "the reasons for not having them don't really apply here."

    The gently centered Quaker part of me is trying hard to calm the Help!-Flee!-We're-Going-to-Hell-in-a-Handbasket! part of me. I do that by settling down to the task of stringing random notes together, a scattered kind of witness.

    First, we are at war. Although no one but the Pentagon admits to knowing what is happening, one sign is the dark whumpa-whumpa sound of the quiet, low-flying surveillance planes. Last night, when my son had finished practicing "Three Blind Mice" on his trombone, my ears were filled with a dull reverberation somewhat greater than that which ordinarily troubles the air in the wake of his prodigious renditions. We looked out the window and saw three large lights on a dark aircraft that was floating along only a little way above the treetops. It looked as though aliens were landing--it slid quietly overhead like something out of The Empire Strikes Back. "They're on the watch for submarines," said a friend whose father is in the military. So I know we are at war.

    Even my son has been recruited. He came home from school and looked for ways to earn a dollar. "I need money to send to George Bush," he explained. "Come wha...?" I asked. It turned out he was answering the President's call for every child in America to donate a dollar to help feed refugee children. "I think this money is probably for UNICEF," I said. "No," insisted my son, who has heard a little about a lot. "George Bush is going to use it to give Afghan children some social security."

    Second, our public health system is imploding. You can tell how panicked officials are by their bizarre yet perky incoherence in the face of emergency. "No cause for worry," they keep saying while trotting out the law of averages, like a schoolboy by the ear, to show how much more dangerous it is to drive a car. "Since 1975 there has been only one case...uh, make that two...uh, three...oops, a fourth...uh, maybe a fifth..." They spent the last week proclaiming that even though they had closed down Congress and the Capitol building, "no one should worry"--that phrase again--because there was no way that the bacterium "would present itself outside a sealed envelope."

    They had to revise that assessment, of course, after four people at the Brentwood Postal Facility in Washington, DC, came down with the inhaled form. Since then, the government says it's going to set things right by mailing nearly every US household a postcard with reassuring words and information listing the characteristics of missives worthy of suspicion. They will be mailing this bit of reassurance, presumably, from a large central postal facility. I wake up in the middle of the night imagining spores hitching rides on the coattails of mailmen as they fan out from our nation's capital and spread across the homeland. I know that this is an irrational thought, but still--it wakes me up. A former student tells me that he was sitting around at his cigar club (doesn't it just beg for parody? But... another time) and everyone was puffing away and asking each other how many units of Cipro they had "scored." "It's the new Ecstasy," he marvels. I see it as more like the new Agony.

    Third, the word "homeland" has burrowed its way into ordinary conversation and multiplied with astonishing rapidity. It is not just the curious name of an office merging police and intelligence functions. It is a lowercase reference to purple mountains' majesty and all those fruited plains. Suddenly, "America the Beautiful" has become some sort of bad translation from the German. Like "Fatherland" or "empire," labels channel unspoken allegiances. I wonder about the line-drawing such an odd term was calculated to evoke--it sounds at once intimate and abstract--like the good-guy quadrant in some strategic computer game? Like the Bush team's attempt to sound epic? Like some effort to denationalize and fuse enemy status with that of domestic criminality--as in home-wreckers, home invaders, domestic abusers? "Homeland Security" is the new office of what they keep calling "psy-ops," after all. There's gotta be an angle.

    The thing that worries me most about this time is how hard it is to talk about anything but fear. The fight has been framed as a war with "terror," a battle against an unruly if deadly emotionalism, rather than a war against specific bodies, specific land, specific resources. A war against terrorism is the inverse of a war "for" courage. It is a war of the mind, so broadly defined that the enemy becomes anybody who makes you afraid.

    National Public Radio broadcast a conversation with Dr. Jerrold Post, a professor of something called "political psychology." Dr. Post discussed passages from an Al Qaeda training handbook in which operatives are advised to "blend in," to stay clean-shaven, not to talk too much over coffee and to pay their parking tickets in a timely fashion. The conversation was a classic bind in which the implied message is to trust no one, just tell the authorities every move your suspiciously average neighbors make.

    It seduces, this corrosive distrust. Call me a Luddite, but I think this is a formula for panic. There are, of course, perfectly rational reasons to be afraid just now, but our unalloyed ideology of efficiency combined with a traumatic amount of actual bureaucratic bumbling has left us poised at the gateway of an even more fearsome world in which the "comfort" and convenience of high-tech totalitarianism gleam temptingly, yet in which our American-ness endures only with hands up! so that our fingerprints can be scanned, and our nationalized identity scrutinized for militarily defined signs of abnormal normativity.

    Patricia J. Williams

  • Politics October 11, 2001

    New World Order

    As I write, the world is filled with fear. I am having one of those reactions that psychologists describe as a stress response. I suppose I'm not alone, though. A friend calls and says, "You hung a flag yet? Anyone who's been to Cuba, you better hang a flag." "Cuba?" I ask, startled. "You don't mean that weeklong human rights trip seventeen years ago?"

    "You poor naïve child. I'm sending you a big one. Hang it on your porch."

    In the newspaper, I read of Muslims who are shaving their beards and removing their veils. I read of blacks who are embracing suspect profiling. There's an unsubstantiated rumor on the Internet of Barney Frank hugging Strom Thurmond just before he fainted.

    "It's that list they'll be drawing up in the Office of Homeland Security," explains a fellow paranoid as we shop for bottled water. "Nobody wants to be on that." Then she points out the physical resemblance between Tom Ridge and J. Edgar Hoover. She believes in reincarnation. I do not, but...it really is uncanny.

    Another friend calls to say she's been reading the Washington Post. "Sally Quinn's got gas masks for everyone in her family. Her doctor gave her a stock of antibiotics, enough for her and all the servants." The word "triage" begins to rise uncomfortably in my mind. Who gets to stockpile antibiotics in this new world order? If I went to a doctor for a little "extra" medication, he'd turn me in for drug dealing. If minorities suffer from unequal access to medical treatment now, what happens when panicked hordes make a run on hospitals for limited supplies of anthrax vaccine?

    Not that any of this will do any good anyway, I suppose. My mother reminds me of the bomb shelters that sprang up during the 1950s. "I worried too," she said. "But you can't control this sort of thing on an individual level. Will you never go to the beach for fear of being too far from the shelter? Will you never take off the gas mask for fear of smelling the roses?" A friend of mine who's a psychologist says that it is precisely the terrifying lack of control that is sending so many people over the edge. She says that lots of fragile sorts have been showing up at Bellevue to apologize for having driven a plane into the World Trade Center. The less fragile ones have been busy actually hijacking Greyhound buses and rushing into cockpits in states of extreme agitation.

    On the news, crusty old senators disclose that they have participated in various government war games, in which they role-played all sides of the conflict in the event of hypothetical disasters. The crusty old senators worry me; they move stiffly and are so relentlessly formal that they refer to themselves in the third person, like Bob Dole. I suspect them of playing these games in the groves of the Bohemian Club, with the expectation that whatever happens they will retire to the bar for whisky sours afterward. All this is a too glib way of saying that I simply don't see them coming up with quite the same strategies and outcomes that Al Qaeda might.

    I think that if the Pentagon really wants to role-play doomsday scenarios here at home, they need to lock Jerry Falwell in a small room with Elián González's Miami relatives, G. Gordon Liddy, Louis Farrakhan, Jack Kevorkian, Charlton Heston, Al Sharpton, Kenneth Starr and a horde of neglected, riot-prone, inner-city kids who under the circumstances feel as though they have nothing left to lose. We get O.J. Simpson to keep a body count and Larry King to report what's happening. We give them $43 million worth of weaponry (the sum George Bush, as recently as August, thought would be a nice amount to send to the Taliban), an airdropped bundle of peanut butter sandwiches and ten minutes to reproduce Afghanistan's religiopolitical structure. Does anyone seriously doubt that this much of an experiment would end up destabilizing all of human history?

    "People are screaming through the cracks," says a colleague. I had never heard that expression before. She says it means that people are too scared to say what they mean when you ask them to speak on the record. "But if you ride the buses, talk to truck drivers, go to church, hang out with teenagers in the pool hall, they're terrified of this war. No one knows why all this is happening."

    It is true that everyone has a different conspiracy theory of this war. When I first heard of the bombing, I thought it was retribution for Timothy McVeigh's execution and that "the terrorists" had chosen New York because it's a city of miscegenated minorities. A Jewish friend was equally certain that New York was chosen because "it's a Jewish city." A stockbroker friend finds it obvious that "they" were out to destroy world trade and global economics. Pat Robertson blames Bill Clinton. A Christian evangelical friend says that it's all about "the rapture," which is apparently that moment just short of end-time when the sanctified will be transported directly to heaven and the rest of us will perish. Maureen Dowd, Washington's favorite material girl, flips mournfully through the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue and concludes that it's because foreign agents don't want us to enjoy our "stuff." The White House blames "not all Muslims." And Ari Fleischer blames Bill Maher.

    There's a brilliant trilogy by children's author Philip Pullman titled His Dark Materials. The tale features armored bears enlisted in the fight between good and evil--great clanking white bears who smash through enemy armies, clumsy but immense in their power. In my mind, I keep seeing those big armored bears as American warplanes bombing away, strong and accurate and deadly. But I am also visited by images of "the network" that they're fighting as more of a global spider web, very thin, fine lines of connection--tough, resilient and almost invisible. I keep worrying that armored bears aren't much use against a foe like that. The bears are entirely capable of wreaking havoc in a given spot, but the spider web is small, silent, hard to see--drawing strength from structure, not from size; from belief, not from force. And as long as we do not come to terms with the more subtle nature of that kind of adversary, I will not be able to visualize any good end in sight.

    Patricia J. Williams