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.