I was listening to Morning Edition on December 30, and up came one of those end-of-the-year heart-warmers that’s supposed to make you feel there’s hope for this old world yet. It seems that a 9-year-old Iraqi boy, Saleh Khalaf, came across a cluster bomb and “because it was round and smooth” he picked it up and it blew off all of one hand and most of another, opened up his abdomen, took out his left eye and horribly scarred his face. His 16-year-old brother was killed. Fortunately, and this is the point of the story, he was treated “against protocol” in a US Army hospital and flown with his father for further treatment in Oakland, where he was showered with help by a generous local couple and is now learning English and American expressions like “hold your horses.” Recently his mother and sisters were permitted to join him in California. “I’m happy now,” says Saleh.

Spunky child, loving family, wonderful doctors, heroically kind and generous benefactors. No wonder the reporter, Luke Burbank, got a bit emotional (“the moment you meet [Saleh] you have the overwhelming urge to protect him”). But wait a minute. What was that bit about a cluster bomb? Time was, cluster bombs got at least a sentence to themselves, even in a heart-warmer–a definition, a mini-history of their infamous usage against civilian populations, maybe even a quote from one of the many organizations that have tried to ban them under the Geneva Conventions. You know, cluster bombs. Remember how during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan we read about village children blown apart by Soviet bomblets said to be brightly colored and to look like toys? Those were cluster bombs. It wasn’t the Soviets, though, who dropped that “round and smooth” mini-bomb alongside the road where Saleh found it. It was the United States.

So this is what we’ve come to: We celebrate the rescue of one child and gloss over the inconvenient fact that it was our weapons that maimed him for life. The boy who lives cancels out the brother who died, the moral heroism of his befrienders cancels out the moral turpitude of our government, excuses ourselves, and lets us bask in poignant uplift. Over at NPR, it’s a driveway moment.

Sometimes I think America is becoming another place, unrecognizable. David Harvey, the great geographer, tells the story of a friend who returned to the United States last spring after seven years away and could not believe the transformation. “It was as if everyone had been sprinkled with idiot dust!” Some kind of mysterious national dumb-down would explain the ease with which the Republicans have managed to get so many people agitated about the nonexistent Social Security crisis–at 82 percent ranked way above poverty and homelessness (71 percent) and racial justice (47 percent) in a list of urgent issues in a recent poll–or about gay marriage, whose threat to heterosexual unions nobody so far has been able to articulate. Mass mental deterioration would explain, too, how so many Americans still believe the discredited premises of the Iraq War–Saddam Hussein had WMD, was Osama’s best friend, was behind 9/11. But even as a joke it doesn’t explain the way we have come to accept as normal, or at least plausible, things that would have shocked us to our core only a little while ago. Michelle Malkin, a far-right absurdity, writes a book defending the internment of the Japanese in World War II, and before you know it Daniel Pipes, Middle East scholar and frequent op-ed commentator, is citing Malkin to support his proposals for racial profiling of Muslims. And he’s got lots of company–in a recent poll almost half of respondents agreed that the civil liberties of Muslims should be curtailed. Pipes’s proposals in turn seem mild compared with the plans being floated by the Pentagon and the CIA for lifetime detention of terrorist suspects–without charges, without lawyers, in a network of secret prisons around the globe. Kafkaesque doesn’t begin to describe it–at least Joseph K. had an attorney and the prisoner of “In the Penal Colony” got a sentence.

As I write, the Senate is preparing to take up the nomination of Alberto Gonzales to replace John Ashcroft as Attorney General. Despicable as Ashcroft proved to be, and much as the Senate should have foreseen that and rejected him, he had not at the time of his nomination been responsible for memos justifying torture. He hadn’t argued that the President stood above the law and could pretty much do whatever he wanted. He had not been in the center of months and months of revelations about the horrific doings at Abu Ghraib, in detention centers in Afghanistan, or, even as you are reading this, Guantánamo. How can it be that the smart money is on Gonzales being confirmed? That Charles Schumer, a popular blue-state Democrat with a war chest bigger than Alexander the Great’s, is already talking sagely about the presumption that the President gets the Cabinet members he wants?

If only the problem was stupidity. But Chuck Schumer, Daniel Pipes, the people at Morning Edition, are all very smart. Even Michelle Malkin is probably not actually dumb. And anyway, you don’t need a high IQ or a PhD to believe in law and human rights and the Golden Rule. The problem is fear. The media are afraid of looking too “liberal,” intellectuals are afraid of being called “anti-American”–and they will be if they challenge too vigorously the crimes being committed in America’s name–Democrats are afraid of having their remaining bits of turf plowed under and sown with salt by the Republicans, the left is afraid of looking too “secular” and not “supporting the troops,” and ordinary people are afraid of being blown up by the terrorist next door.

Fear dust. That’s what it is. Fear dust.

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If you would like to help victims of the tsunami, consider a donation to MADRE. This international women’s human rights organization is helping with immediate relief and is partnered with INFORM, a Sri Lankan women’s group, to work with victims for the long term, when the big money donors have moved on. Give at www.madre.org or mail a check (write INFORM on the memo line if you want your donation to be dedicated solely to tsunami relief) to 121 W. 27 Street, Room 301, New York, NY 10001.