I’ve been surprised, here in Petrolia, listening to some people say they’re afraid. Afraid of what? I ask. Remember, even in the days when the imminent possibility of nuclear holocaust was dinned into schoolkids, ducking and covering, California’s North Coast was held in high esteem as a possible sanctuary. It’s a reason many nutsos like the Rev. Jim Jones headed up to Mendocino and Humboldt counties in the years when Mutual Assured Destruction seemed just around the corner.
In this case, after that crime against humanity known as the September 11 attacks, the fearful folk amid the daily scrum round our post office and local store were concerned about further terrorist attacks, dire onslaughts on the Bill of Rights, war or a blend of all three.
We may yet see just such a dread combo, but to be honest about it, I’ve been somewhat heartened, far beyond what I would have dared hope in the immediate aftermath of the awful destruction. Take the pleas for tolerance and the visit of President W. Bush to mosques. Better than FDR, who didn’t take long to herd the Japanese-Americans into internment camps.
Of course, President WB has been dishing out some ferocious verbiage about dire retribution and an endless war against terror, but what do you expect? You can’t kill 6,000 or so, destroy the World Trade towers and expect soft talk. And of course there’s been plenty of waving of the Big Stick, with B-52s taking off and aircraft carriers churning across the oceans of the world, but again, what do you expect?
In times of national emergency there are always those who see opportunity. The Justice Department has been trying to expand wiretapping and e-surveillance for years. The Pentagon and State Department have long chafed at the few puny restraints on their ability to arm and fund tyrants and train their torturers. So far as the Office of Homeland Security is concerned, we needn’t expect Governor Tom Ridge, who presided over the savaging of constitutional protections during the demonstrations in Philadelphia at the GOP convention in July 2000, to be sensitive to constitutional issues. But even here let me offer a grain of encouragement.
The reaction in Congress to Attorney General John Ashcroft’s wish list has been considerably better than that single voice of courage a few days earlier, when Representative Barbara Lee stood alone against the stampede of all her colleagues to give the President full war-making powers. At this juncture I never would have expected to cheer Representative Bob Barr of Georgia, as he thundered his indignation at Ashcroft for presuming to use this emergency as the pretext for every DoJ attempt over the past years to savage further the Bill of Rights.
War fever? Maybe, but I can’t say I feel that crackle in the air. Plenty of flags, naturally, but they seem to symbolize national togetherness more than dire national purpose. When I drove into Eureka, the nearest town to Petrolia, the shopkeepers and customers were mostly making cheery jokes about the presidential command to keep the economy afloat by shopping. On the way home I listened to Dan Schorr lamenting the lost language of national sacrifice, but over Churchillian “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” I’ll take “shop till you drop” any day.
In times like these the role of the press is to beef up national morale, instill confidence in the leader, pound the drum. Here, too, things aren’t nearly so bad as they might have been. Two weeks after the attacks I got an e-mail from Bill Blum, who’s written masterful records of the crimes wrought in America’s name by the CIA and other agencies down the years.
“I think,” Blum wrote, “that if this article can appear in USA Today, then some good may come out of the tragedy yet. And it’s one of many I’ve read, in the a and elsewhere, the past two weeks that mention truths about the US role in the world that are normally filed by the media under ‘leftist propaganda garbage.’ The Post quoted Castro at length about American imperialism, without putting him down. To us leftist propagandists, it’s all old stuff, but to the American mass mind, it’s ‘huh?'”
Then Blum attached an article by Sandy Tolan, published on September 20, 2001, in USA Today, titled “Despair Feeds Hatred, Extremism.” Tolan wrote, “The men in the four doomed airliners were filled with hatred and a twisted interpretation of Islam. But this explanation alone is not sufficient. It does not account for the flammable mix of rage and despair that has been building up in the Middle East since the Gulf War’s end.” Tolan vividly described the “humiliation and anger of a population living under decades of occupation: Israeli bulldozers knocking over families’ ancient stone homes and uprooting their olive groves; military checkpoints, sometimes eight or 10 within 15 miles, turning 20-minute commutes into 3-hour odysseys; the sealing off of Jerusalem and the third-holiest shrine in Islam to Muslims across the West Bank; the confiscation of Jerusalem identification cards, and hence citizenship, from Palestinian students who’d been abroad for too long; the thirst of villagers facing severe water shortages while Israeli settlers across the fence grew green lawns and lounged by swimming pools; U.S. M-16s used to shoot at stone-throwing boys.”
Easy, concluded Tolan, to dwell only on the madness of Wahabbite Islam, but “much harder is to understand that our own failure to witness and address the suffering of others–the children of Iraq, for example–has helped create fertile recruiting ground for groups seeking vengeance with the blood of innocents.” This, mind you, in one of the largest-circulation papers in the country.
How truly terrible it would be if Americans utterly declined to think about their history, even if only to reject the notion of its relevance. That would imply a sense of absolute moral and historical self-assurance equivalent to that of bin Laden. In no way do I sense this to be the case today, and that’s the most heartening omen of all.
Footnote: The Nation‘s editorial directors decree no inter-columnist disputes. It’s obvious that I differ utterly with Christopher Hitchens’s “Against Rationalization,” printed last week. For specific reflections on Hitchens’s recent Nation pieces, please visit the CounterPunch website, www.counterpunch.org.