Snow Falling on Ashes

Snow Falling on Ashes

It was a cold, gray morning, chance of flurries. As I braced for the weather that’s buffeted the East Coast recently, I thought: What a spiraling blizzard of bad policy we face.


It was a cold, gray morning, chance of flurries. As I braced for the weather that’s buffeted the East Coast recently, I thought: What a spiraling blizzard of bad policy we face.

Within an hour, a much larger storm than predicted rolled in. Whiteout conditions, two inches of accumulation an hour. School let out early; I bent into the wind to hunt for provisions, my burrowing instinct sharpened by the looming war. The snowstorm felt like practice for the disruption of not-just-another-Desert-Storm. Competing media images of flakes falling and sky falling were mixed up in my mind. I filled the tank of my sensibly efficient automobile and shopped for peace through comfort food: chicken and milk, broccoli and brownie mix. I spent the rest of the day indoors, watching the world disappear beneath a deep blanket of white. It was the Perfect Storm.

How lucky I am, I thought, to be able to indulge my fear of war with this snug fantasy, a jaded city-dweller’s dream of post-industrial frontier life, but not too far from Kmart. I am always poised to camp out for up to three days, and there’s a childish relief in that. I still have stores of candles left over from Y2K, plus batteries in all sizes, extra nuts and raisins, and a shortwave radio. I have, however, managed to control that recurring sense of panic in the bottled-water aisle of the grocery store–back on the eve of 2000, I was so terribly suggestible that I stocked up on bottles of water so large that when one burst, the floorboards of an entire room were warped in the ensuing flood.

The snow fell fast and silently, as though plugging the holes in the dike against war. Safe and dangerous, gentle but forceful, impenetrable but unreal. I immersed myself in the live reports of the United Nations inspectors and the ensuing discussions among members of the Security Council. I listened to National Public Radio because their coverage was calm and coherent, but simultaneously I watched the hearing as broadcast on network television. Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei made their presentations, proclaiming that they needed “not weeks, not years, but months” to complete inspections. The television then cut away to a series of advertisements, while on NPR the foreign ministers of Germany, Bahrain and Mexico cited their deep discomfort at initiating a war. I listened while watching television’s visual wall of dancing sanitary pads, detergent and laxatives.

Next, Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke. TV went back to the UN to cover his speech, full of strength and demands and ultimatums, a verbal spanking. Invasion as duty. After Powell’s speech, the TV cut to a series of White House correspondents for interpretation and analysis of what one called the “awesome power of the United States.” Meanwhile, on NPR, the Russian foreign minister was asking: “Is it reasonable to halt these inspections and the momentum they have achieved? Which is better: the difficult but clearly fruitful results of the inspectors’ work or resorting to force…with its serious and unpredictable consequences?” France’s foreign minister decried what he called the “automatic use of force,” suggesting instead that the pace of inspections be stepped up; that inspectors report every three weeks, if necessary; that a schedule be established, of 120 days or shorter, but not the mere seven days Washington was pushing. China agreed with France, and Chile cited the “central position” of the UN and multilateralism as a “permanent interest.” There was a soap opera on TV while Spain’s foreign minister spoke, echoing Powell in his denunciation of inspections as a “strategy of impotence.”

The TV cut back to the UN long enough for Britain’s Jack Straw, then off again to more ads for Kmart and Metamucil. On NPR the foreign ministers of Angola, Cameroon, Pakistan and Guinea urged that their conviction that a peaceful resolution was still possible “not be interpreted as an unwillingness to act.” The UN Charter, they urged, binds nations to exhaust all nonmilitary means of compliance. I listened desperately, watched hopelessly–it was as though two different destinies were unfolding in parallel worlds.

In the ensuing days most domestic news hewed to a narrative very much driven by the television version: the United States and Britain seemingly opposed only by the querulous truffle-and-piffle-extruding French. By week’s end the whole thing was being packaged as a “standoff” between rock-solid American values and the unyielding, dogmatic, yet effeminately puffing French. The “rest of the world” was repeatedly described as “undecided” or seemingly not even worthy of such an energetically emasculatory drubbing.

When I think about it, I’ve been primed for disaster my whole life. In elementary school in the 1950s, we were taught that there was recourse if radioactive fallout dusted our persons in the wake of an atomic sunset. “Take a shower immediately,” my second-grade teacher advised. “Take cover under your desk.” Later, during the Bay of Pigs, we would practice saving ourselves by spending the recess hour marching two-by-two from one side to the other of the school basement, singing “Oops, there goes another rubber-tree plant!” and “Go, you chicken fat, go!” In the event of a real nuclear war, I suppose, it would have been a bit like the orchestra playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as the Titanic sank. But in the absence of such, it was a foundational bonding experience of purest optimism.

I think of this, the uncynically full-throated childhood-me, as I watch the birds of spring return, and yet the snow keeps falling. It lends a sense of control, I guess. I cannot die if I have bottled water. There’s a handsome man at the helm of the ship in a uniform with shiny silver buttons and he’s telling us what to do because God is on our side and ours is not to reason why, and I’m not afraid of that iceberg or the fire falling from the sky or that ring of burning resentment stretching from Iran to Yemen to Afghanistan to Serbia to Colombia to Iraq to Nepal to Turkey to Chechnya to Indonesia to Pakistan to Venezuela to the Philippines to North Korea to Canada to…

Hold my hand. Let’s sing.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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